More than 5,000 former criminals have been pardoned after ending their contracts to fight for the Russian mercenary group Wagner against Ukraine, Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Saturday.
The Wagner Group, originally made up of battle-hardened veterans of the Russian armed forces, took on a much more prominent role in the Ukraine war after the Russian military suffered a series of humiliating defeats last year. Prigozhin emerged from the shadows and recruited thousands of men from prisons, offering them the chance for freedom in exchange for serving in some of the most dangerous battles in Ukraine.
“Right now, more than 5,000 people have been released under pardon after completing their contracts with Wagner,” Prigozhin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, said in an audio clip posted on Telegram. Prigozhin said that only 0.31% of those pardoned after Wagner's service committed crimes, a figure he said was 10-20 times lower than standard indicators.
Prigozhin, sometimes nicknamed "Putin's Chef" for his sprawling catering businesses, is the most powerful of a group of Putin allies who now control what are essentially private armies recruiting top military officers, ex-spies and convicts.
The United States portrays Prigozhin as an oligarch and has sanctioned him for trying to interfere in US elections and for spreading Russian disinformation around the world. The businessman, who served nine years in prison in Soviet times for robbery and other crimes before starting a business during the 1990s, has admitted to interfering in US elections and acknowledged for the first time his role in founding Wagner. .
Wagner, who has fought in Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic and Mali, bills itself as the most battle-hardened mercenary group in the world. He dismisses Western criticism of what he says are sometimes harsh methods and strict discipline by pointing to the use of private military contractors by the United States and its allies around the world.