The Hamilton Spectator

Freed to Fight in Ukraine, And Killing Again at Home

- By NEIL MACFARQUHA­R and MILANA MAZAEVA Oleg Matsnev contribute­d reporting.

Viktor Savvinov had already been imprisoned several times for various crimes — including robbery, auto theft and assault — when he murdered a female drinking companion in 2020, stabbing her in the chest with four knives.

A Russian court sentenced him to 11 years in a maximum-security prison. So when recruiters from the private Wagner mercenary group offered him freedom and a clean slate if he deployed to fight in Ukraine, Mr. Savvinov seized the opportunit­y.

By February, Mr. Savvinov had completed his service and was back in his native village, Kutana. One day that month, he was staggering drunk around the snowy streets, residents said, complainin­g loudly that villagers showed him insufficie­nt respect as a veteran. The next night, he murdered two of them, according to a law enforcemen­t report, striking a male drinking buddy dead with a crowbar before killing his own estranged aunt by axing her in the head, and then torching her wooden house.

Russia’s recruitmen­t of convicts has provided an overwhelmi­ng manpower advantage in the war in Ukraine. But the strategy is backfiring as inmates pardoned for their service return to Russia and commit new crimes.

The Russian government restricts the release of informatio­n that puts the war in a bad light. But a survey of Russian court records by the independen­t media outlet Verstka found that at least 190 criminal cases were initiated against pardoned Wagner recruits in 2023. That included 20 cases of murder or attempted murder as well as rape, robbery and drug-related crimes.

Still, on March 23, President Vladimir V. Putin signed a new law meant to formalize the process of recruiting inmates.

Before, the criteria for pardons was opaque, and Mr. Putin pardoned convicts who had fought in Ukraine by signing decrees that were never made public. The new law establishe­d a long list of eligible crimes, including murder, robbery and some rapes. Earning pardons is now a matter of law, not presidenti­al decree, but convicts let out of prison to fight can get one only after their military commanders approve.

“Nobody used to lock their doors in the village at night, but now they lock them with a key, even during the day,” said a resident of Kutana, a Siberian village of 1,000 people, declining to use her name out of fear that Mr. Savvinov might win another pardon if he was convicted and volunteere­d again to fight in Ukraine.

The Wagner group began recruiting convicts in August 2022, with a promise of pardons in exchange for a six-month contract. Before being disbanded last year after a failed mutiny against the Kremlin, the group said it had recruited more than 50,000 prisoners.

Many of those men died, some are still fighting, and an estimated 15,000 have returned home, according to Olga Romanova, the head of Russia Behind Bars, a nongovernm­ental organizati­on dealing with prisoner issues.

Crimes committed by veterans often go unreported in Russia. National media outlets have mentioned only a few sensationa­l cases.

Having survived harsh conditions in penal colonies and then a war, convicts return to the streets with no rehabilita­tion. And law enforcemen­t officers are often intimidate­d by the former inmates’ new status, Ms. Romanova said.

Those pardoned after particular­ly shocking crimes include a serial killer from Sakhalin known for cannibalis­m; a member of a Satanist sect convicted of ritualisti­c slayings; and a man who killed his former girlfriend by brutally torturing her for hours.

Last year, Mr. Putin played down the issue of pardoned convicts committing new crimes. “This is inevitable,” he said. “But the negative consequenc­es are minimal.”

Near the southweste­rn city of Krasnodar last spring, a young father, Kirill Chubko, the owner of a party business, and one of his employees stopped to fix a burst tire on a dark road one night. They encountere­d three robbers who forced them to withdraw around $2,000 from bank machines before fatally stabbing them, according to a law enforcemen­t report. The head of the gang had been sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2016 for preying on motorists but was released to serve in Ukraine.

The widow of Mr. Chubko said attending the arraignmen­t of the three suspects made her sick to her stomach. (The other two had petty criminal records, and there was no indication that either had served in Ukraine, according to local press reports.)

“These people belong in prison,” she said, adding: “My kid and I walk in the park, and they might be walking there. It’s not like it’s written on their foreheads that they are criminals.”

Dangerous Russian convicts are back on the streets.

 ?? DAVID GUTTENFELD­ER FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? A classroom in Velyka Oleksandri­vka, Ukraine, in 2022. Before being disbanded last year, the Wagner group said it had recruited more than 50,000 prisoners.
DAVID GUTTENFELD­ER FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES A classroom in Velyka Oleksandri­vka, Ukraine, in 2022. Before being disbanded last year, the Wagner group said it had recruited more than 50,000 prisoners.

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