Like Russia, Ukraine is now recruiting soldiers from prisons

Ukrainian convict Vitaliy Yatsenko is joining the country’s military as part of a new program to find more recruits. (Photo: Serhii Korovayny for The Wall Street Journal)
Ukrainian convict Vitaliy Yatsenko is joining the country’s military as part of a new program to find more recruits. (Photo: Serhii Korovayny for The Wall Street Journal)


Kyiv says more than 4,500 convicts have already applied for a program in which prisoners will have to serve till the end of the war with Russia before winning their freedom.

KYIV, Ukraine—In 2020, Vitaliy Yatsenko went to pick up a parcel containing illegal amphetamines from a Kyiv post office and was met by 10 policemen and detained. This week he will cut short his five-year prison sentence to join Ukraine’s stretched armed forces.

In a sign of the Ukrainian military’s desperate need for fresh troops, Kyiv is taking a leaf out of Russia’s playbook by recruiting inmates from prisons to serve in its armed forces. The government says that 4,656 convicts have already applied for the program in which prisoners will have to serve till the end of the war before winning their freedom.

Kyiv is faced with stark choices as an initial wave of volunteers fades and they lose ground against an enemy that can draw on a population 3½ times as large. Many front-line units say they are depleted and exhausted, and Ukraine is struggling to draft enough men to hold off mounting Russian offensives.

In search of hundreds of thousands of new soldiers, Ukraine has lowered the age of mobilization, increased financial compensation for troops and sought to coerce military-age men who fled abroad to return home and fight.

This week, Yatsenko will leave his prison cell and join the military. For men like this 23-year-old, the program is a chance for redemption.

“I feel ashamed to be in prison," he said in an interview at the jail where he is being held. “This is my chance to be useful."

Yatsenko doesn’t know where he will be sent or what role he will be given. He has yet to tell his mother, but said he is driven in part by a desire to make her proud following his incarceration.

Convicts have been used in wartime through much of history, often in the most dangerous roles. Napoleon deployed penal brigades and both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union drafted criminals and political prisoners. After World War II the practice ended in many countries, not least because there was no need for large-scale mobilization.

The Ukraine war has led to a resurgence. Russia’s Wagner militia began to recruit convicts soon after its February 2022 invasion started to go awry. Moscow continued the practice after Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, rebelled against the military leadership and died in a plane crash in August last year.

Ukraine’s program will differ in several respects. Unlike in Russia, those convicted of certain crimes won’t be eligible. That includes those with convictions for sexual violence, traffic accidents that led to deaths, and murder if it was of more than one person or carried out with “particular cruelty," among other restrictions, said Оlena Vysotska, a deputy Ukrainian justice minister.

While Russian prisoners will mainly get their criminal record expunged after service, Ukrainians won’t.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice estimates that authorities can recruit around 5,000 people from prisons. Russia never confirmed the total number of convicts it recruited but figures from the prison service show a reduction of more than 35,000 in the country’s total prison population between May 2022 and January 2023, the peak of Wagner’s recruitment.

A senior official at Yatsenko’s prison said several convicts with more serious criminal records have been told their convictions bar them from serving, leaving them disappointed. Likewise, some have expressed interest, only to back down when informed of the risks, he said.

Convicts will be placed in special units, but it isn’t clear what they will be tasked to do.

Russia’s Wagner units were used in late 2022 and early 2023 in risky attack waves on the city of Bakhmut that resulted in thousands of deaths.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense didn’t immediately comment, though the country tends to take fewer risks with its soldiers than Russia does.

Volodymyr Barandich, another recruit, said he is impatient to leave jail for a front-line position. Around six months ago Barandich was an army corporal serving around the town of Avdiivka, one of the front line’s most dangerous hot spots, when he was sentenced for a drug-dealing offense. Barandich maintains his innocence and said he was set up by a former friend.

“I felt ashamed, because I was in here and my colleagues were still at the front," he said. He has almost five years of his sentence to run.

The 32-year-old had been in the military for six years when he was jailed. During his time in prison he said he never lost the ambition to return to the front line. Then in May, he was in a prison workshop when another convict told him that a law had passed that would allow those in jail to serve.

“Finally," he said he remembers thinking.

Neither Barandich nor Yatsenko say they are nervous about fighting.

Barandich’s girlfriend Alina said that she is nervous. But she says she supports the decision of a man who has always felt at ease in the military.

“Why should he be in prison if he can fully serve his country?" she said.

Yatsenko grew up impoverished in Kyiv in a single-parent household. He says that he dealt drugs because he wanted the money.

Embarrassed by the conviction, his girlfriend left him. On hearing of his arrest, his mother got angry and screamed that he was stupid.

“I was stupid," he said.

While the program has been broadly welcomed in Ukraine, some have expressed concern on social media about how armed convicts will be controlled.

The initial round of Russian convicts could leave the army after six months and after returning to civilian life some committed serious crimes, including murder.

Ukraine officials say its program takes on convicts of less serious crimes than Russia’s. Those who have committed a murder can apply but their application must go through a risk assessment with the prison, judicial and prosecution service, said Vysotska from the Ministry of Justice.

Vysotska said there are patriots among convicts who want to rehabilitate themselves. A prison service should emphasize correcting behavior and resocializing people for outside life, not incarceration for the sake of it, she said.

Yatsenko says other prisoners told him they will see how he and other convicts fare before deciding. On a recent visit to their prison, bored-looking men stood in courtyards smoking. Some labored under a hot sun making concrete obstacles known as dragon’s teeth for the military.

“But prison life is like a summer holiday camp" compared with the front, said Barandich.

Oksana Pyrozhok and Ievgeniia Sivorka contributed to this article.

Write to Alistair MacDonald at

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