Watch CBS News

Russia's Wagner chief says no more prison recruits as group's role in Ukraine war shrinks

Russian mercenaries on “lies” that lured them
Russian mercenaries on the “lies” that lured them to Ukraine 03:01

The leader of the Russian mercenary group Wagner says the private army will reduce the number of fighters it has deployed in Ukraine and has put a halt entirely to its practice of recruiting detainees from Russia's prisons to send to the front lines.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has long been seen as having close ties with President Vladimir Putin, referred to "a certain number of structural changes" in a video recorded Wednesday. 

"Prisoners have stopped being recruited to our groups, who, beforehand completed heroic tasks," he said in the video. "Of course, at one point in time the number of divisions is going to reduce and the quantity of tasks will also decrease."

Prigozhin had announced earlier this month that Wagner would no longer recruit from prisons, after reports that his company had stopped the practice more than a month ago. The businessman said in a statement at the time that Wagner would still honor its contracts with prison recruits, many of whom were promised pardons in exchange for fighting in Ukraine.

"Advancement is not happening as quickly as we would like," Prigozhin said in the new video this week, of fighting in Ukraine. "Why is it not happening quickly? I think we could have taken Bakhmut by New Year's if it wasn't for our horrific war bureaucracy and the sticks in wheels that are inserted every day."

He didn't give any specific reason for the end of the prison recruitment program. Wagner units have been fighting in some of the most vicious battles in the Ukraine war, and last month the group took credit for capturing the town of Soledar, in what amounted to Russia's first real territorial gain since the summer.

Ukrainian forces told CBS News earlier this year that Russian fighters, including those from Wagner, were being treated like meat on the battlefield.

"They are forced to advance over the bodies of their fallen soldiers. One group is destroyed, new ones come … over and over," Anton Zadorozhyni, battle commander of the Ukrainian National Guard's 3rd Operative Battalion, told CBS News' Debora Patta. "At night they collect the bodies."

"We have respect for our opponents," said Prigozhin. "Traitors are the ones that need to be destroyed. Enemies inside the country are the ones that need to be destroyed."

Mariia Kashchenko contributed to this report.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.