Short on troops, Ukraine is liberating criminals to combat | EUROtoday

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KYIV — To fill a vital scarcity of infantry on the entrance line, Ukraine has embraced one in every of Russia’s most cynical techniques: releasing convicted — even violent — felons who comply with combat in high-risk assault brigades.

More than 2,750 males have been launched from Ukrainian prisons because the parliament adopted a legislation in May authorizing sure convicts to enlist, together with these jailed for dealing medicine, stealing telephones and committing armed assaults and murders, amongst different critical crimes.

Now — searching for revenge in opposition to Russia, or in pursuit of private redemption and freedom — they’re buying and selling their jail jumpsuits for Ukrainian military uniforms and deploying to the entrance strains.

Senya Shcherbyna, 24, who’s serving six years for dealing medicine, is ready to be interviewed by navy recruiters and hopes to deploy as quickly as doable. “I think I can redeem myself,” Shcherbyna stated in an interview, “and seem more useful to my society than if I’m just sitting here.”

Fellow prisoner Serhii Lytvynenko, who has served 11 years of a 14-year sentence for lethal assault, stated he was nonetheless deliberating. “I’m not sure they’re really going to treat us as normal fighters,” he stated. “We don’t know right now if they’re going to take you and just throw you in like meat.”

Recruiting criminals — a standard apply in Russia, the place tens of hundreds have been freed to combat in Ukraine — is the newest signal of Kyiv’s battle to replenish its forces, that are depleted and exhausted after greater than two years of nearly nonstop preventing.

Although the Ukrainian parliament accepted a brand new mobilization legislation aimed toward widening the draft pool, the laws has but to yield sufficient new troops. In the meantime, the Ukrainian basic employees is looking for able-bodied fighters wherever it might probably, reassigning some troopers from rear positions to fight roles and recruiting prisoners.

Ukraine is going through a scarcity of infantry on the entrance line. In May, a brand new legislation made it doable for prisoners like Maksym to volunteer. (Video: Serhiy Morgunov, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post, Photo: Oksana Parafeniuk for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

Under the brand new legislation, prisoners certified to hitch the amnesty program will be assigned solely to assault brigades, which may imply face-to-face fight with Russian troops.

That restriction displays Ukraine’s most pressing wants, stated Justice Minister Denys Maliuska, including that he expects not less than 4,000 males to volunteer on this first spherical of recruitment. For now, the convicts will serve solely in items made up totally of former prisoners, commanded by an everyday soldier.

“The motivation of our inmates is stronger than our ordinary soldiers,” Maliuska stated in an interview at one of many prisons the place almost 100 have already been freed to combat. “Their release is only one part of the motive. They want to protect their country and they want to turn the page.”

Ukrainian officers granted a request by The Post to interview a number of new troopers freshly launched from jail on the situation they be recognized solely by first names consistent with navy guidelines.

Dmytro, 28, was sentenced to 4½ years behind bars in 2021 for stealing a telephone. He was married with two kids when his sentence started, however was launched final month with no household left: his spouse and youngsters, ages 2 and seven, have been killed in an airstrike on their house home in Izyum in April 2022.

The reminiscence continues to be so painful that within the interview he couldn’t deliver himself to talk their names.

Avenging their deaths by preventing within the struggle “motivates me,” Dmytro stated. “The Russian Federation is responsible for this.” He was launched from jail a number of weeks in the past and is now coaching at a navy base, the place he has already discovered to deal with a rifle.

Edward, 35, who was sentenced in 2019 to seven years and 7 months for armed assault, stated he dreamed of becoming a member of the navy as a younger boy however grew up in poverty and fell into crime.

Since Russia’s invasion in 2022, Edward stated, he had hoped the legislation would change to permit males like him to combat. He was first in line when the legislation handed and is now in coaching.

Edward’s hometown is aware of him solely as a legal, he stated. He desires to indicate them — and himself — that “I nonetheless have some humanity left in me.”

Ukraine passed a new law in May allowing certain prisoners to be released to serve in the military. More than 2,750 convicts have since been conscripted. (Video: Serhiy Morgunov, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Dmytro was imprisoned for theft. He lost family in Russia’s full-scale invasion and was eager to fight. A law recently passed freed him to join the military. (Video: Serhiy Morgunov, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Under Ukraine’s current mobilization laws, men and women can sign up to fight of their own accord at age 18, but only men 25 and older can be drafted. President Volodymyr Zelensky has resisted lowering the draft age further — it was reduced from 27 this spring — in part because of social pressure to protect Ukraine’s youngest men from the war.

Instead, to fill the ranks, draft officers stop men of fighting age on the streets to ask for their military registration papers. Recruiters offer financial perks to those who volunteer before they are called up. And now the military is visiting prisons to seek volunteers.

Not all criminals qualify. Those who murdered more than one person, committed acts of sexual violence or violated national security laws are ineligible. Any prisoner signing up to fight must be physically fit, pass a psychological exam and be no older than 57, allowing him to serve at least three years before hitting the exemption age of 60.

Ukrainian officials insist the prison release program is constitutional, ethical and practical during wartime, given that thousands of fighting-age men are sitting behind bars instead of filling crucial roles on the front.

Unlike in Russia, where the recruitment of criminals was pioneered by the Wagner mercenary group, Ukraine’s convicts will be recruited only into the official military and will receive all the same benefits as regular soldiers.

Some commanders are eager to have them. “There is a competition between military commanders to hire” from prisons, Maliuska said. “There is a lack of manpower, so they really want to get access.”

But not everyone seems to be satisfied.

“No one has trust in this, but we need it,” said one military official involved in the process who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the plan candidly. This official said he fears that prisoners will cause disorder on the front line or desert their positions. “They’re all going to run like Forrest Gump,” he said.

The official said he would prefer that Ukraine lower the draft age to 18 and allow brigades to recruit younger, fitter men rather than convicts. But he said he does not expect Zelensky to change the draft rules again any time soon, out of fear that he could lose support if young men are forced to take up arms.

“When people see young men die, it’s political,” the official stated.

Oleh Petrenko, who is recruiting from prisons for Ukraine’s 3rd Separate Assault Brigade, said he will use the “exact same ideology” when selecting applicants from prison as he does when sifting through regular civilians.

It’s up to Ukrainian troops to treat the new troops equally, he said, or else word will get back to the prisons and fewer men will be motivated to join. “We need to show we’re not the same as Russia,” he said.

Oleksandr, 42, who heads a prison that has already released 98 inmates to join the military, said his staff briefed all the prisoners before welcoming in brigade representatives to discuss specifics and conduct interviews. Those who wanted to move forward underwent medical exams and psychological assessments.

Once brigades made their selections, prisoners’ documents were prepared for court and the men were cleared for release. When they boarded buses for their training, Oleksandr bid them farewell. “I told them to stay safe, stay alive and return with victory,” he said, speaking on the condition that only his first name be used for fear his facility could be targeted by Russian missiles.

Some prisoners expressed fears that the method was unclear. Others have been disenchanted they didn’t qualify.

Serhii Ivachenko, who was convicted of exploiting minors on the internet, said he wants to fight but is prohibited because of his crimes. “We’re men,” he said. “If women are doing it right now, we should be embarrassed of ourselves.”

Valentin Solovyov, 28, said he was worried about going to war with fellow convicts. He returned home from the eastern front in 2015 deeply traumatized and later killed a man.

Now serving time for homicide, Solovyov stated he fears that if he goes to combat, he might be caught in a unit with prisoners who’re mentally unwell. “I don’t have faith I’ll be with normal people,” he stated. “I’ve lived with prisoners for a long time.”