The UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) has said the military outfit has massively increased in size in the past year due to the recruitment of convicts from Russia’s jails.
In its latest intelligence report, it says: “In the coming weeks, thousands of Russian convicts who have fought for Wagner Group are likely to be pardoned and released. Wagner prisoner recruitment peaked in autumn 2022, with inmates being offered commutation of their sentences after six months of service.
“Although approximately half of the prisoners recruited have likely been killed or wounded, evidence from Russia suggests the group is following through on its promise to free survivors.”
The MoD said that the certificates issued to freed Wagner veterans were “endorsed by the decree of President Putin”.
They added: “With Wagner now likely banned from recruiting more prisoners, this exodus will worsen its personnel problems.
“In addition, the sudden influx of often violent offenders with recent and often traumatic combat experience will likely present a significant challenge for Russia’s war-time society.”
It comes after Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed his forces are battling deeper into the key Ukrainian city dubbed “Fortress Bakhmut”.
The oligarch’s group has been losing troops at five times the rate of attrition suffered by Ukraine’s military.
But Prigozhin says his men are closing in from three sides and that capturing the city will “make the world shudder”.
Russian forces must go through Bakhmut in order to push deeper into the areas in Donetsk province they don’t yet control.
But it has taken them six months to try and unseat Ukraine’s soldiers.