Pardoned for Serving in Ukraine, They Return to Russia to Kill Again

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

A court in Russia’s Siberian region of Yakutia 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, a morgue orderly, seized the opportunity.

By February, Mr. Savvinov had completed his service and was back in his native village of Kutana. That month, on Defenders of the Fatherland Day, 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 metal crowbar before killing his own estranged aunt, who lived next door, by axing her in the head, and then torching her wooden house.

Russia’s practice of recruiting convicts has been the backbone of its success in Ukraine, providing an overwhelming manpower advantage in the war. But it is backfiring in tragic ways as inmates pardoned for serving in Ukraine return to Russia and commit new crimes.

Overall numbers on recidivist crimes are hard to establish because the Russian government restricts the release of any public information that puts the war in a bad light. 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, among others.

Still, the Kremlin appears to be doubling down on the policy of recruiting inmates. On March 23, President Vladimir V. Putin signed a new law meant to formalize the process.

Back to top button