From prison to the trenches: Inside Ukraine’s attempt to turn inmates into soldiers

By Daria Tarasova-Markina, CNN

Central Ukraine CNN  —  Battalion commander Dmytro Kukharchuk speaks quietly but firmly. Holding his tattooed hands behind his back, he tells the men – all convicts – about his experience fighting for Ukraine in Bakhmut and Avdiivka.

Kukharchuk, 34, is at a prison in central Ukraine, trying to recruit physically strong, healthy and motivated prisoners into his unit, the 3rd Separate Assault Brigade.

More than two years on from Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine is struggling to replenish its depleted military ranks. To address this, the government introduced a new law last month permitting the recruitment of convicts. It allows individuals who meet certain conditions to be granted conditional early release if they sign a contract to serve in the military.

Kukharchuk doesn’t promise the prisoners much. “It won’t be easy. But when you come to us, you come to a family,” he tells the men, explaining that the brigade will not have any special “penal” units. Instead, he says, the recruited prisoners will be integrated into the existing battalions.

Some of the men listen attentively, others smirk.

But even those who smirk start paying attention when Kukharchuk’s colleague starts speaking. The man, who asked CNN to identify him only by his call sign “Dato” because of privacy concerns, is one of them.

He has spent much of his life behind bars. Convicted of various crimes, he escaped from prison three times and was paroled in February 2022 after serving 31 years. He joined the Ukrainian army just hours after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

Members of the 3rd Separate Assault Brigade seek to recruit convicts in a prison in central Ukraine.

Dato, 58, commands respect from his audience. His voice cuts through the yard and when he pauses, the silence is heavy. Dozens of prisoners hang on his every word. Some are standing outside in the yard; others are leaning out of the windows of their cells.  His speech is peppered with prison slang. He speaks of honor, duty, and reputation. “This is your chance to rehabilitate yourself in the eyes of your children,” he tells them.

Recruiters from several brigades have already visited this prison of 700 men, and about 100 inmates have already signed contracts with different units.

The new law does not allow the recruitment of people convicted of crimes against the foundations of national security of Ukraine, or of particularly serious corruption offenses. Those who committed the most violent offenses are also excluded. People convicted of two or more premeditated murders, of crimes committed with cruelty, or of murders combined with rape or sexual violence, are barred from signing up.

According to the Ministry of Justice, 5,000 inmates have applied to join the military since the law was signed. Some are already undergoing basic training at a training ground in central Ukraine.

How exactly the law will work in practice remains to be seen. After it was passed, Ukraine’s Justice Ministry said the inmates, who must sign up of their own free will, would serve in separate units. But Kukharchuk and Dato, representing the 3rd Separate Assault Brigade, would like to have the prison recruits serve with regular infantry.

Kukharchuk told CNN the soldiers from his brigade have no issues with fighting alongside convicts. “How can you have a special attitude towards people who come to you, who will sit in the same trench with you, who will participate in assault operations with you and have your back?” he said.

But other commanders, while supportive of convicts’ recruitment, are not so sure about integration. “Prisoners should fight in separate units. And they need very good people to lead them,” one commander, who goes by the call sign “Teren” and is fighting in Avdiivka, told CNN. The artillery reconnaissance commander with the 110th Mechanized Brigade asked for his real name not to be used for security reasons.

“I am not against prisoners fighting at all. I’m surprised that we didn’t use this idea at the beginning of the war. There are always a lot of casualties among the infantry, and if the convicts want to (risk their lives) to go to fight in the infantry, it’s a good decision,” he added.

Shaking off the ‘ex-prisoner’ label

The convict recruits will be allowed the same family leave as other soldiers and will be entitled to the same salary but won’t receive the annual leave that is standard for other troops, according to the law.

According to the Ministry of Justice, 26,000 people are currently in prison in Ukraine. Since the law came into effect, 5,000 male inmates have applied to join the military, the ministry says. Nearly 2,000 have already passed their medical examination and been released from prison into the military by the courts. The first tranche of prisoner recruits is already in basic training, according to Ukraine’s Minister of Justice Denys Maliuska.

Speaking to CNN in Kyiv, Maliuska said he expected more convicts to sign up. Many are waiting to see what happens to the first round of recruits, he said, but the initial reaction has been positive.

He believes many prisoners see the program as a chance to shake off the “ex-prisoner” label that tends to stick to people even after their release.

“There are definitely risks. But the morale and mood of those who are released from prison are much higher than that of those who were mobilized somewhere on the street,” he told CNN.

“A person forcibly mobilized who did not want to go to the army sees it as a tragedy, and a deterioration in his living conditions. And you can expect desertion from this category (of soldiers) much more than from a person for whom it is a rise in the social ladder, income, lifestyle, and respect. For prisoners, it is a rise in the social ladder.”

The minister told CNN the government knows that prisoners might present challenges to commanders on the ground, but he said the law can be tweaked as needed depending on how things look in practice. A lot will depend on unit commanders and their ability to establish discipline in the prisoner units, he said.

Dmytro, 28, a convict recruit whose wife and two kids were killed by a Russian strike in the eastern city of Izium in April 2022, joined the army as soon as he was given the opportunity.

The push to recruit inmates into the military appears at first glance to parallel a campaign of prison recruitment by Russia’s mercenary company Wagner early in the war, and continued by the Ministry of Defense since last year. The lives of thousands of Russian convicts have been expended in so-called “meat grinder” assaults, particularly in the fighting for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

But Maliuska rejected the comparison.

“In Ukraine, motivation is largely based on patriotism. Our prisoners join the army voluntarily. In Russia, it was voluntary and forced. I personally saw (Russian) prisoners who were forced to join Wagner,” he said, adding that in Russia, inmates were recruited into the notoriously brutal private military company, whereas in Ukraine, they are joining the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

“This is a regular state military service with all the guarantees: salary, social insurance, payments in case of injury, death, and so on. This is a completely different story in terms of motives and mechanisms.”

‘I will now protect other families’

At a training ground in central Ukraine, a group of prisoners is already into the second week of basic training. Among them is 28-year-old Dmytro, whose wife and two young children were killed by a Russian strike in the eastern city of Izium just weeks into the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, while he was serving a four-and-a-half-year term in prison. He asked CNN not to publish his last name for security reasons.

Dmytro told CNN he knew he wanted to fight from the moment the war started. When the recruiters visited his prison, he was among the first to sign up.

“I had a wife and children, and I knew someone had to protect them. But since I couldn’t, I will now protect other families who want to live and have children,” he told CNN.

Dmytro told CNN that he grew up as an orphan and started stealing when he was young. He said that he believes prison teaches people how to survive in a tough environment, which means that former prisoners might be able to handle the pressures of the front lines better than ordinary civilians.

He told CNN that when his family was killed, he wanted revenge. He cannot bear to talk about those he lost now, but dreams of the day he might be able to start afresh and have children who would be proud of him.

“I have a year and five months left of my sentence. That is not much. I could stay in prison and not go to war. But I am motivated. I don’t want other people to go through this,” he said, referring to the loss of his family.

Back at the prison, Kukharchuk and Dato select their recruits carefully. Sitting across from them in an interview room, they ask each of the volunteers about their background and their motivation. The brigade does not accept those who are over 50 years old, have any serious health problems or are physically unfit. Orphans, on the other hand, are immediately favored.

Kukharchuk told CNN that orphans who have had a difficult childhood and are used to surviving and coping with difficulties tend to do well in the military. After each interview, the prisoners shake hands with the recruiters. Those selected fill out paperwork then await further instructions.

Of the 17 inmates who wanted to join on the day CNN visited the prison, the 3rd Separate Assault Brigade recruited 12. Kukharchuk said that was “a very good number”.  The brigade is one of the most highly sought-after units and it usually rejects more than half of the convicts wanting to join it.

There are exceptions to the rules. One of the prisoners has poor eyesight and Dato and Kukharchuk at first hesitate to recruit him. After a short chat though, the man is accepted.

“Eyesight can be corrected. Motivation is more important than eyesight,” says Dato.

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