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The Russian parliament’s lower house, the State Duma, has sparked international controversy by approving legislation that grants pardons to criminal convicts who voluntarily enlist in Russian forces fighting in Ukraine.

The move comes as Russia seeks to bolster its troop numbers during the initial phases of Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

The legislation formalises the recruitment of prisoners and criminal suspects into the ongoing conflict in Ukraine — a practice initially employed by the private military contractor Wagner last year. However, in early 2023, Russia’s Ministry of Defence assumed control over prison recruitment, as reported by the Moscow Times on Tuesday.

The State Duma released a statement on Tuesday (September 5), outlining the parameters of this unprecedented initiative. Notably, the amnesty does not apply to all incarcerated individuals in Russian prisons.

Exempted from this opportunity are individuals convicted of heinous crimes such as acts of terrorism, sex offences, espionage, and treason.

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According to the statement published on the Duma’s website, “The validity of the document does not extend to those who have previously been convicted of terrorist and extremist acts, as well as offences against the sexual sanctity of minors.”

If the legislation ultimately becomes law, those who join the Russian army through this program will have their criminal records expunged upon completion of their military service, receipt of a state award for their service, being wounded in action, or reaching the retirement age of 65, as per the Moscow Times.

This controversial move marks a significant shift for Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict. Previously, private military contractor Wagner relied heavily on recruiting prisoners from Russia’s penal system.

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However, the company’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, announced in February that Wagner had discontinued this practice. In a statement on his company’s Telegram channel at the time, Prigozhin explained, “We have completely discontinued the recruitment of prisoners into Wagner PMC. To those who work for us currently, all obligations are being fulfilled.”

The decision by Prigozhin, who was killed in a plane crash two weeks ago, raised questions about the reasons behind this shift in recruitment strategy. Possible explanations include a dwindling pool of potential recruits, intervention by the Ministry of Defence, financial constraints, or a shift in Russia’s strategic priorities on the battlefield.

Having enlisted between 40,000 and 50,000 prisoners from various jails across Russia, it was hypothesised that the supply of volunteers from the prison system had substantially diminished, rendering the campaign no longer effective.

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