Pardoned for Serving in Ukraine, They Return to Russia to Kill Again

Viktor Savvinov had already been imprisoned several times for various crimes — including robbery, auto theft and assault — when he murdered a female drinking companion during a quarrel in 2020, stabbing her in the chest with four knives.

A court in Russia’s Siberian region of Yakutia sentenced him to 11 years in a maximum-security prison. So when recruiters from the private Wagner mercenary group offered him freedom and a clean slate if he deployed to fight in Ukraine, Mr. Savvinov, a morgue orderly, seized the opportunity.

By February, Mr. Savvinov had completed his service and was back in his native village of Kutana. That month, on Defenders of the Fatherland Day, he was staggering drunk around the snowy streets, residents said, complaining loudly that villagers showed him insufficient respect as a veteran. The next night, he murdered two of them, according to a law enforcement report, striking a male drinking buddy dead with a metal crowbar before killing his own estranged aunt, who lived next door, by axing her in the head, and then torching her wooden house.

Russia’s practice of recruiting convicts has been the backbone of its success in Ukraine, providing an overwhelming manpower advantage in the war. But it is backfiring in tragic ways as inmates pardoned for serving in Ukraine return to Russia and commit new crimes.

Overall numbers on recidivist crimes are hard to establish because the Russian government restricts the release of any public information that puts the war in a bad light. A survey of Russian court records by the independent media outlet Verstka found that at least 190 criminal cases were initiated against pardoned Wagner recruits in 2023. That included 20 cases of murder or attempted murder as well as rape, robbery and drug-related crimes, among others.

Still, the Kremlin appears to be doubling down on the policy of recruiting inmates. On March 23, President Vladimir V. Putin signed a new law meant to formalize the process.

Before, the criteria for pardons was opaque, and Mr. Putin pardoned convicts who had fought in Ukraine by signing decrees that were never made public. The new law established a long list of eligible crimes that were explicitly added into Russia’s criminal code, including murder, robbery and some rapes. Earning pardons is now a matter of law, not presidential decree, but convicts let out of prison to fight can get one only after their military commanders approve.

Crimes not eligible include terrorism, espionage or treason, and some sex crimes involving minors, among others.

“Nobody used to lock their doors in the village at night, but now they lock them with a key, even during the day,” said a resident of Kutana, a Siberian village of 1,000 people, declining in an interview to use her name out of fear that Mr. Savvinov might win another pardon if he was convicted and volunteered again to fight in Ukraine.

“Normal life” was gone, she added, noting that the aunt whom he killed had once been named a “teacher of the year” and awarded a prize from the Kremlin.

Similar experiences have scarred other cities and towns.

In Chita, near the border with Mongolia, a Ukraine veteran was sentenced last month to 14 years in prison for strangling a 22-year-old prostitute to death with his bare hands. In 2020, he was sentenced to 14 years for strangling and dismembering an 18-year-old girl.

In the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, a former Wagner mercenary who had served 15 years on theft and fraud charges was sentenced in February to 17 years for raping two schoolgirls, aged 10 and 12.

Near the southwestern city of Krasnodar last spring, a young father, Kirill Chubko, the owner of a party business, and one of his employees stopped to fix a burst tire on a darkened road one night. They encountered three highway robbers who forced them to withdraw around $2,000 from their banks before fatally stabbing them, according to a law enforcement report. The head of the gang had been sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2016 for preying on motorists but was released to serve in Ukraine.

In 2017, Sergey Rudenko was sentenced to 10 years in prison for strangling his girlfriend to death with a belt. He earned his release when he signed on with Wagner to fight in Ukraine.

In April 2023, in Rostov-on-Don, in southwestern Russia, Mr. Rudenko, 34, went looking for an apartment. After arguing with the real estate agent over the proposed rent, he strangled her with a cloth cord, then stabbed her in the neck, a law enforcement report said. A district court sentenced Mr. Rudenko to more than 11 years in prison.

Local news reports did not name the victim, and several local residents, reached by telephone, said they knew nothing about it.

The details of these crimes were drawn from numerous interviews, local investigation reports, local news articles and court records. Most relatives and friends of the murder victims spoke on the condition of anonymity, concerned that the killers might win new pardons and come after them. Those interviewed were also worried that the authorities might charge them under wartime laws against denigrating the military, which includes publicizing soldiers’ previous crimes.

The Wagner group began recruiting convicts in August 2022, with a promise of presidential pardons in exchange for signing a six-month contract. Before being disbanded last year in the wake of a failed mutiny against the Kremlin, the group said it had recruited more than 50,000 prisoners.

Many of those men died, some are still fighting and an estimated 15,000 ex-convicts have returned home, according to Olga Romanova, the head of Russia Behind Bars, an NGO dealing with prisoner issues.

“A great many prisoners were back on the loose, and it became a big problem,” she said. The crimes seemed to belie the official narrative that the war is being fought to make Russia safer and that veterans will constitute a new elite, she added.

Crimes committed by veterans, whether from the Wagner group or otherwise, often go unreported. National media outlets have mentioned only a few sensational cases. “It is a story about invisible violence,” said Kirill Titaev, a Russian sociologist working at Yale University who specializes in criminology. “It is a big problem for the society, but one they do not recognize.”

Russian commanders frequently deploy untrained convicts who join the Russian army as cannon fodder. Having survived harsh conditions in penal colonies and then a bloody war, they emerge back on the streets with zero rehabilitation.

Many of them return to their communities exuding a certain swagger, experts said. They view their service as having rehabilitated them, and usually have money to burn. Their base monthly pay from Wagner of around $2,000 constituted a small fortune in much of Russia.

In addition, law enforcement officers are often intimidated by the former inmates’ new status, Ms. Romanova said.

Those pardoned after committing particularly shocking crimes and then serving in Ukraine include a serial killer from Sakhalin known for cannibalism; a member of a Satanist sect convicted of ritualistic slayings; and a man who killed his former girlfriend by brutally torturing her for hours.

Last year, Mr. Putin played down the issue of pardoned convicts committing new crimes. “This is inevitable,” the president said. “But the negative consequences are minimal.” Although he confirmed issuing presidential pardons, the Kremlin has refused to name the recipients.

Relatives of previous victims and other locals are often vocal critics of releasing criminals. In Novosibirsk, the pardoned murderer of a used-car saleswoman is now driving a taxi, despite efforts to get him dismissed.

Some lawyers accuse prosecutors of slow-walking cases against veterans in hopes that the local outcry will quiet.

“This is a new level of lawlessness,” said the lawyer for the widow of Mr. Chubko, who along with his employee was murdered by a highway gang. The lawyer’s repeated requests to prosecutors for a copy of the pardon have been denied. “They keep telling us that it is a state secret,” he said. “We are fighting the investigation more than the accused.”

Mr. Chubko called his wife late on the night he was killed, telling her not to stay up, that some men he encountered on the road would help change his flat tire. The next morning, her husband, still not home, did not answer his cellphone.

However, his wife reached Tatyana Mostyko, 19, who worked for her husband. Ms. Mostyko told her in a strange voice that Mr. Chubko was not available, and the wife said that she figured out later that he had already been killed. Ms. Mostyko was being driven around to various A.T.M.s and was soon murdered, according to an investigation report.

The widow said attending the arraignment of the three suspects made her sick to her stomach. (The other two had petty criminal records, and there was no indication that either had served in Ukraine, according to local press reports.)

“It was obvious that they had no regrets,” she said. Her husband had once remarked that recruiting soldiers from prisons was not normal, she added.

“These people belong in prison,” she said. “I’m scared that they are among us. My kid and I walk in the park, and they might be walking there. It’s not like it’s written on their foreheads that they are criminals.”

Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting.

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