To increase troop numbers during the early stages of Ukraine's counteroffensive, the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, has approved legislation that would grant pardons to criminals who volunteer to join Russian forces fighting in Ukraine.
The legislation formalizes the practice of recruiting prisoners and criminal suspects for the war in Ukraine, which was pioneered by the Wagner mercenary force last year before being taken over by the Russian Ministry of Defence in early 2023, according to the Moscow Times on Tuesday.
Amnesties for fighting on the front lines in Ukraine do not apply to all criminals in Russian prisons, according to a statement from the State Duma on Tuesday. Serious crimes like treason, espionage, and acts of terrorism are among those that are excluded.
According to a statement 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 offenses against the sexual sanctity of minors."
According to the Moscow Times, if the legislation is passed into law, those who join the Russian army will have their criminal records cleared once their military service is complete, they have won a state award for valor, they have been wounded in battle, or they have reached the retirement age of 65.
Those suspected of committing crimes are also given a pass if they agree to serve in Ukraine.
Authorities may suspend criminal proceedings against suspected criminals who agree to take up arms if they face up to five years in prison for premeditated crimes or up to ten years for negligent acts. The bill states that crimes committed after the law goes into effect won't be erased, according to the Moscow Times.
The laws will then go through one round of voting in Russia's upper house Federation Council, and then Russian President Vladimir Putin is anticipated to sign them into law, according to the newspaper.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the millionaire owner of the Wagner Group mercenary force, was already permitted to hire criminally convicted individuals as mercenaries by promising them pardons if they survive six months of fighting in Ukraine. This was done even before the legislation was passed.
Prigozhin claimed over the weekend that 32,000 of his Wagner mercenaries who had been recruited from prisons had served in the Ukrainian war and had returned home. The leader of the Wagner group claimed in May that the fight for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut had claimed the lives of about 20,000 of his fighters.
Prigozhin has complained that his recruitment access to Russian prisons has been restricted due to the high-profile hostility between Wagner forces and Russia's defense ministry.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington, DC-based think tank, reported on Tuesday that Wagner forces are looking to enlist new combatants "in the wake of significant losses in Ukraine."
The ISW stated that on June 19, "Russian opposition outlet Verstka reported that Wagner recruiters are disseminating messages on social media platforms calling for people aged 21 to 35 with a 'gaming background' to join Wagner as UAV specialists."
The institute stated that Verstka "noted that these recruits are not required to have any military experience."
According to Ukrainian military officials, Ukrainian forces are advancing steadily and incrementally in the ongoing counteroffensive, while Russian forces are fiercely resisting from behind minefields and fortified positions.
Hanna Maliar, the deputy minister of defense of Ukraine, stated on Tuesday that although Ukrainian forces were making progress, the campaign would not be a swift offensive with quick victories like in a "movie."