Wagner Penal Battalion — The First Step to Firesale Privatization of Russia’s Military Power?

First Russia's oil to oligarchs, now its military capacity?

First Russia's oil to oligarchs, now its military capacity?

“I’ve never heard of anything more neo-liberal.”

This week it has become known that convicts in Russia are being released into Wagner mercenary company.

According to a Prigozhin recruitment speech in one of the penal colonies, prisoners are able to trade in their sentence for a 6-month stint with Wagner in the Ukraine.

After 6 months they receive an official pardon from the state.

Releasing prisoners into military service has a strong historic precedent in Russia. During World War 2 nearly one million gulag inmates were released into the Red Army.

Many started their service in shtraf or penal units. Inmates could exchange 3 to 5 years of their sentence for 1 month in a shtrafbat (penal battalion) or shtrafroty (penal company).

The maximum length of service in shtraf was 3 months as anything longer was considered a death sentence, so only prisoners with 10 years or less remaining were eligible.

Shtrafniki were also considered to have redeemed themselves with blood if they were wounded and were released into regular army units if so.

Reading this I sure never thought shtraf would make a comeback in my lifetime

Recruiting for war in prisons as such thus has a precedent in Russia. But there is a massive innovation here. — Prisoners are being released into the custody of a private commercial enterprise.

And it is in exchange for a stint with a private commercial enterprise that the government promises them an official state pardon.


These are people who are in state custody and who are going to war for the pardon only the state can provide.

The state has all the power here. Wagner has no leverage.

Why doesn’t the state simply release these men into penal units of the military?

Why open up prisons to Wagneruse your pardon leverage for Wagner, and then pay Wagner for the privilege of running the men that you gave it?

Why not tie the pardon to service in some outfit organized by the state?

Why channel captive (literally) manpower to a private company you’ll then have to pay for managing the resource (to be crude) you provided it with?

I’ve never heard of anything more neo-liberal.

Working with mercenaries is eyebrow-raising to start with. But maybe there’s an argument for it in the sense that a mercenary company might have access to manpower that would otherwise be out of reach for you. For example, people who don’t like military discipline, but who don’t mind corporate discipline.

But what does Wagner bring to the table here?? These are literally your prisoners that only you can provide with the pardon they want.

I’ve heard of private prisons where the state pays a company to house and guard them because they’re able to do it for cheaper. (Which is iffy enough.)

And I’ve heard of private companies that employ convicts inside state prisons against compensation to prisoners and the state. (Which is open to abuse.)

But channeling your captive manpower into Wagner so that you can pay Wagner even more money for fielding more fighters, why is the middle man needed here??

This sounds like the most unnecessary and the most private-favoring public-private partnership ever.

This is as if you gifted a private company a gold mine for free, so that you can now pay the company for gold that until yesterday was yours.

Except it’s worse than that because here you’re engaging in radical experiments in the early release of criminals on top of that, and you’re doing it to enlarge the role of a private company in the field of dishing out violence that is supposedly solely state’s prerogative.

There is already a sense in the military and Rosgvardia that Wagner is privileged. That where Wagner is on the attack that shells and air support are always found to back it, while they themselves are all too often given the ungrateful tasks of defending the most neglected parts of the front.

Hell, Wagner already has a mini air force now. It is fielding Su-25 strike aircraft. Something that could have only been made possible with a direct transfer from the state.

With the state granting Wagner further privileges (a monopoly on captive manpower), what direction is the prestige and the morale of the military supposed to go from here?

Let’s not play dumb. We know there are reasons the state may prefer to work with Wagner rather than its own military.

One reason is that Wagner has a better reputation with potential fighters than the state. The military frequently fails to deliver on promised perks of the job like housing, and who is optimistic enough to fully trust the complicated bonus schemes promised by regions to 3rd Corps recruits? Going to war via Wagner or another mercenary route via the Chechens is regarded as safer.

Another reason might be the very lawlessness of the arrangement. The Soviets ran penal combat units but that was 70 years ago. Nobody in the Russian military today knows how to make a penal combat unit work.

Neither does Wagner, but Wagner operates in the grey area, so perhaps it is hoped that Wagner not being subject to oversight or having to follow military law can make up for the lack of procedures and experience with lawlessness. That is to say, if the shrafniki try to desert the Wagner PMC can deal with them in ways that military police or Rosgvardia — especially without written orders, or procedures drilled into them — would probably balk at. (Indeed in the video Prigozhin promises to summarily execute prisoners who change their minds in Ukraine.)

Finally, by working with a PMC the government can make corruption and inefficiency in the ranks not its problem. If the government spends resources on the upkeep of a military unit only to discover, once the unit has been called up, that the outfit sucks because the officers have been selling off the materials intended for training and maintenance then the government has a big problem on its hands.

But if the government pays Wagner to deliver a certain result and the latter fails, then the next time Wagner simply won’t get a contract.

The problem is, what happens when PMC stakeholders gain access to the highest reaches of the government? When the mercenaries fill their pockets to the extent that they can buy up officials? Or when high-ranking officials like Prigozhin and Kadyrov become shareholders in mercenary enterprises? Suddenly you have a section of influential people with the ear of Vladimir Putin with every incentive to darken the reputation of the military, to starve it of resources, and even to corrupt it further.

A private military might be more efficient and less corrupt than a state-owned one. Just like a private defense plant or a private oil drilling company might be. But does that mean that you end up with less corruption? No, it doesn’t. In practice what happens is simply that corruption migrates to a higher plane.

A state-owned defense plant burdens the budget through its lethargy, waste, and theft. But the “well-run” private defense plant buys up Congressmen and think tanks and then runs your budgetary and foreign policies.

What happens if the Wagner pie becomes so large that they can hand out lucrative ownership stakes to men in Putin’s inner circle? What happens when not just Prigozhin, but Medvedev, Sobyanin and Petrushev have an incentive to see the military humbled and Wagner ascendant?

Might we see a scenario where Russian draftees are presented with the choice of serving in either the regular military or Wagner? It would be surreal and I honestly don’t expect it, but it is also surreal that Moscow is handing out pardons to criminals to raise Wagner’s numbers. Who knows where this leads?

This is very weird and surreal stuff that is going on. Stuff that 6 months ago nobody predicted.

What would we say if in 2004 George Bush started pardoning criminals if they signed up for a 6-month stint with Blackwater in Iraq?

Mercenaries broke the ice in America, but it is in Russia that they have attained heights unseen before.

And what does that say about the nature of Putin’s rule? He was once regarded as a statist. Someone who is all about sovereignty, stability, procedure — and most of all state capacity. Well, I see very little of that left. More and more I see improvisation and neu-feudal wheeling and dealing.

I do wonder what a Soviet general from the 1980s who would have been a part of a staggering 3-million military — a massive monument to state capacity — would have made of a prediction that 40 years later Moscow would be reduced to opening its jails to a mercenary company in order to replenish its manpower. And that in a war for places like Kharkov and Odessa!

Putin once cracked down on private companies in oil extraction when they started hijacking the system to benefit themselves. It didn’t matter that they were legitimately well-run. Yet now, in the name of convenience and a little more efficiency, he is opening the door for private interest to take over parts of Russia’s military capacity.

Across the post-Socialist world, it is believed that when the old system fell the ex-Communist managers of state-owned companies intentionally ran them into the ground so they could acquire them on the cheap for themselves.

Well at the start of this war the Russian military was set up for failure. It was thrown into war without notice and the chance to prepare, told to cut a third of its manpower, spread out across numerous axes, without a unified command or operational plan, and to fight in direct contravention of its doctrine and structure — but was made to pursue numerous and extremely ambitious targets (Kiev, Nikolayev, Voznesensk, Sumy, Chernigov…) anyway. It continues to be set up for failure to this day as conscript manpower, which it is structurally built to rely on in a large war, is not made available to it. The result is that the military is in the doldrums and that Wagner and other mercenary connects are ascendant. Now that the state-run military has been discredited, the private militaries can flourish as never before.

I’m not going so far as to say it was a conspiracy. But if it were, what would be done any different?


Why Stalin’s Soldier’s Fought, Roger R. Reese — Great book by a great historian

  1. Blackledge says

    “…at the start of this war the Russian military was set up for failure.”

    Indeed it was, and failing it is, as recent events have amply demonstrated. It’s bizarre how the 5D chess Beta-followers refuse to acknowledge the obvious, and can’t explain the unfolding military disaster with anything remotely approaching reality. There’s an entire subset of low-T imbeciles online living in Pepe Escobar’s fantasy world, totally oblivious to any truth because it’s just too painful for their small brains to bear. I wonder what they will do when Russia sues for peace… probably continue to pretend it’s “victory.”

    1. YakovKedmi says

      >>>> “the Russian military was set up for failure”
      That remark caught my eye, too. So, why someone doesn’t write a page-long article on who set up the Russian armed forces ? Why has the Cheka and Grand-Protector V.V. Putin set up the armed forces to fail ? Was the Expeditionary Force of the Empire set up to fail only in Ukraine ? or is it a structural failure ? a failure that was predetermined to happen since 2012 when Comrade Shoigu was installed as Minister of War (and everything related to the armed forces) ?

      The Armed Forces started preparations for this Special Operation against Ukraine the day after Biden was inducted into the White House. In 12 months of high-command brain activity they come up with a game-plan that was a drug-induced day-dream. Who set up the Expeditionary Force to fail ? was it the Cheka ? was it NATO ? V.V. Putin ? Shoigu & his general friends ?

      Who is V.V. Putin ? a Grand-Protector of Slavdom, Mother Russia and Pan-Slavia ? or a partner in crime ? or a low-grade government lackey who was played by WEF like someone on ropes ?

      “The second reason that a 300,000 minimum for an invasion is wrong is that the nature of warfare has changed. Drone, radar, laser, and GLONASS have transformed the accuracy of artillery to where it is now properly thought of as a smart, guided weapon. Indirect artillery fire has been transformed from a tool of suppression to a tool of annihilation. Kiev imagines fending off Russian massed tank charges with Javelins. But Russians don’t need to charge anyone. Upon encountering resistance they can just as easily disengage and do like the Americans and pick up a phone and order a guided-munitions strike —in their case the plentiful, capable, and now highly accurate, Russian artillery. It isn’t about troop levels, it is about firepower on target. Warfare has become far more lethal. 80 reinforced Russian battalions represent a far greater quantity of accurate firepower than they would have in WWII or the 1960s. Concentrated, 80 BTGs is enough to severely maul the tiny Ukrainian standing army of not more than 150,000 first-rate troops enveloped from three sides and spread out over 1,500 kilometers.”

  2. Muck says

    I think it’s a convenient solution for the Russian government, for similar reasons that Blackwater/Academi is a convenient solution for the U.S. government. But it also looks a bit desperate.

  3. TZVI says

    In terms of Using manpower that would otherwise have to be fed in a prison, whats the problem? The Ukraine did this early on. I had an Cousin in the U.S.A. during WWII who got into trouble, the judge told the then 17 year old he had a choice prison or the Marines…of course he chose the Marines…ended up fighting in the bloody final battles of WWII in the Pacific ( Iwo Jima – aka Io To – and Okinawa)…

  4. James the 2nd says

    Another of a very long line of examples that prove the maxim: everything the government touches turns to shit.

  5. Agarwal says

    I think there is a much more prosaic reason for Putin relying on Wagner. It’s that Wagner dead don’t really count, in the same way that Donbas republics dead don’t count. Putin is not so much a humanitarian with Russian lives as afraid of political blowback from deaths in the Russian military.

    “Wagner is a private company, what they get up to is not under our control” – Russian diplomats have often said this in reference to Wagner projects in Africa. Wagner is one thing and Russia is another, so you don’t have to count Wagner KIA in Russian total, you don’t have to take responsibility for them, it’s not Russia’s fault. That sort of thinking.

    There are secondary reasons as well, Wagner apparently has looser rules of engagement than the Russian military, which in practice make Wagner more effective.

    1. Stevek9 says


    2. peterinanz says

      That’s primary reason.
      Secondary is those troops are, most of the time, much better, on small unit level, than regular infantry, especially in attack/assault. Harder and more realistic training, much harder discipline and the men, themselves, are hardened to violence and personal well being.

      The problem those units often have is quality fire support from the regular military.
      Bottom line: nothing will change with introduction of those troops on the front lines.

      There is a third reason: those troops could be quite effective in crushing any internal dissent.

  6. Agarwal says

    Not directly related, but here is today’s top fold headline from The NY Times:

    Strikes and Fighting in Ukraine’s South Put Pressure on Russian Forces

    Sub-headline: Ukraine has been pushing a counteroffensive in the Kherson region, but Russia had been preparing for weeks and there was no indication of a mass withdrawal.

    I never thought I would read such a torturously roundabout way of saying “Ukraine’s offensive in Kherson has met stiff resistance and is making limited progress”

    You can criticize Russia and Putin, but this sort of blatant, obvious propaganda would have been unimaginable in a major US newspaper until about 2015 or so. There is something very unhealthy in American public discourse, and this sort of thing is not limited to the Ukraine invasion, or to foreign affairs more generally

  7. Noragami says

    None of you are more or less right about this. Here’s the truth:

    Militaries are supposed to be sovereign and nationalistic. My nation, right or wrong. But if so, how is Putin supposed to gift Russia to the WEF and the Great Reset? How can he do that, if a powerful and respected Russian army still exists?

    He can’t. The military might stop him. It might stage a coup, with public support.

    So, the military has been put through a humiliation ritual – a beloved tool of the Khazarian Mafia – in order to break it, and break public loyalty towards it.

    The conflict in Ukraine was always supposed to be a monstrous meat-grinder, dragging on for years, because that is what the Khazarian Mafia need to help achieve the Great Reset. For example, by collapsing Western Europe’s economies. By permanently destroying industries and standards of living. By leaving people cold and hungry, and weak.

    But why not also use the conflict to neuter the Russian Armed Forces – thereby shifting military might to the WEF’s toy soldiers, Wagner? The result is a fighting force adequate to protect the WEF lapdog Putin, and quosh any citizen uprising against CBDC, total surveillance, social credit scores, and digital slavery.

  8. Kieran says

    a private army being used in a conflict is not exclusive to Russia nor is it the first time. French Legionnaire comprises convicts from anywhere. Most private armies on US payroll have fancy names like Mujahideen, ISIS, Contras and whatnot. NATO is pushing mercenaries into Ukraine many of who have been targeted and eliminated by Russia

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