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03/06/24 | 5:08 pm

Ukraine turns to prisoners to alleviate military manpower shortage

In its quest to fill the dwindling ranks of its infantry, Ukraine has turned to recruiting prisoners to join the fight against Russia, and more than four thousand have applied so far.

Under a deal offered to inmates by the government, certain categories of prisoners would have their remaining sentences waived off if they agreed to serve in the army without leave until the end of the war.

At that point they would be granted parole.

“My mother was in hysterics … I’ve been here for five years – a year left and I’m going off to war,” one of those who has signed up, Mykola Rybalka, told Reuters in the yard of his prison in Kyiv region.

Rybalka, who said he was in for theft, is one of 129 prisoners in a colony of 700 who have applied to join the military, according to the justice ministry.

“You know, five years behind these walls leave their mark. You’ve seen a lot and understood a lot. You’re not scared of anything anymore,” he said.

Ukraine, whose population is several times smaller than Russia’s, has struggled to recruit enough soldiers, particularly those who fight for the infantry in frontline positions where they bear the brunt of enemy attacks and suffer heavy losses.

Its troops are outnumbered and exhausted, and a new law has just been signed aimed at mobilizing several hundred thousand more soldiers – although it will likely take several months for the first of those to join their units.

Members of Ukraine’s 3rd and 5th Assault Brigades were present at the event.

The 5th Brigade’s representative, who introduced himself as Vladyslav, told Reuters that his brigade had recruited around 90 people from this prison, and were recruiting in others.

He said those who joined his brigade would be put into separate, prisoner-only units, and that commanders would keep a close eye on them.

The 3rd Brigade’s representative, Oleh Petrenko, said his brigade would not treat convicts differently to other men.

Early on in the full-scale conflict, private Russian mercenary group Wagner recruited tens of thousands of prisoners to fight in Ukraine, offering them a full pardon if they survived six months at the front.

Russia’s Defence Ministry has since continued recruiting convicts from prisons for its own Storm-Z formations.

In Ukraine, prisoners convicted of certain offences do not qualify for military service, including the murder of two or more people, manslaughter through drink-driving, sexual crimes, treason and corruption.

According to the justice ministry, 4,564 prisoners have applied to join the army so far. They need to pass medical checks and have their application approved by a court – more than 1,700 already have the green light.

Reuters was invited into a local courthouse, and saw how a judge approved the application of a man serving a sentence for armed robbery.

He appeared via video link from prison, and the process took about 10 minutes.

The judge, Dmytro Tkachenko, explained that the prison made sure it only sent applicants who met the law’s criteria, and that he and two other judges had been hearing between 10 and 20 such cases a day over the past week.

Of about 100, only two had been rejected, both due to the applicants changing their mind.

Under the new law, 782 prisoners have already been freed from prison and handed over to the armed forces.

Twenty-three-year-old Vitalii Yatsenko, who is halfway through a seven-year sentence for selling drugs, said he had hoped to sign up at the beginning of the invasion, but had not been allowed at that point.

He has now submitted his application to join the army.

(Reuters)

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