Quick death or slow death? A fifth of Wagner’s fighters, recruited from prisons, were HIV-positive

An estimated 20% of mercenaries recruited from Russian prison inmates are HIV-positive. For some of them, the front line seemed less dangerous than prison, where they were denied effective treatment, writes the New York Times, whose reporter interviewed Russian soldiers taken prisoner by Ukrainians, News.ro reports.

The mercenary Wagner, a former prisoner, was captured by the Ukrainians near BahmutPhoto: Sergey SHESTAK / AFP / Profimedia

Russian prisoners were recruited into the war against Ukraine, many of whom were pardoned and promised antiviral drugs if they agreed to fight.

In Russian prisons, they say, they were deprived of effective HIV treatment. On the battlefield in Ukraine, they were promised hope and antiviral drugs if they agreed to fight. This is a recruiting speech that works for many Russian prisoners.

Ukrainian authorities estimate that approximately 20% of those arriving from prisons are HIV positive, based on infection rates found among captured soldiers.

Prisoners said in interviews that working on the front line was more dangerous than staying in prison American newspaper The New York Times.

Timur’s story: “I chose a quick death”

“The conditions were very harsh” in the prison, said Timur, 37, an HIV-positive Russian soldier interviewed at a detention center in the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro. He wanted to be identified only by his first name because he fears he could face reprisals if returned to Russia in a prisoner exchange.

After he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for drug trafficking, Russian prison doctors switched the antiviral drugs he was taking to control HIV with others that Timur feared would be ineffective. He believes he could not have survived a decade in a Russian prison because he contracted HIV. In December, Wagner agreed to serve six months in a mercenary group in exchange for a pardon and antiviral drugs.

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“I understood that I was going to die a quick death or a slow death,” he said of his choice between poor HIV treatment in prison and participation in Russia’s wartime offensive in Ukraine. “I chose a quick death,” he admits.

Taimur had no military experience and was sent forward for two weeks of training. For the attack, he was given a Kalashnikov rifle, 120 rounds of ammunition, an armored suit and a helmet.

Before sending the soldiers into battle, the commanders repeated several times: “If you try to leave this field, we will shoot you.”

Soldiers in his platoon, he said, were sent on a dangerous offensive with waves of soldiers fighting on the outskirts of the eastern city of Bahmut – with little chance of survival. Most were killed on the first day of the war. Timur was captured.

Soldiers with red and white wristbands

Ex-convict units formed the bulk of the forces used by Russia in the Bahmuth Offensive, one of the bloodiest and longest battles of the war. Since last summer, prisoners have been promised pardons to go to war.

People with HIV or hepatitis C were forced to publicly disclose their illness. When captured by Ukrainian soldiers, many wore red or white rubber bracelets, or both, to indicate they had one of the two diseases. Bracelets should be worn as a warning to other players if they are injured, although they are not necessarily contagious if they have received proper treatment.

Antiretroviral drugs can treat HIV indefinitely and suppress the virus to the point where a person is no longer infected. Ukraine allows people with HIV infection to serve in combat roles with the approval of their commanders. The U.S. does not allow HIV-positive people to enlist, but allows infected soldiers to continue serving while receiving treatment.

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“If a person goes from treatment to treatment, the virus is undetectable and can serve, work and not be dangerous to those around him,” says Dr. Irina Dja, a medical consultant at a support group in Ukraine.

Danger to wearers of bangles. These were to protect other soldiers from infection if they wore a bloody wound on the battlefield, the POWs explained. However, the reluctance of companions or doctors to reveal blood may delay first aid.

The blood of the afflicted comrades was spilled

Evgheni, another HIV-positive POW who fought in Wagner’s group, said he suffered a gunshot wound a month before he was captured by Ukrainian forces, according to a videotaped investigation by Ukraine’s internal intelligence. Despite wearing a red apron, he received medical attention in time, but was treated in a hospital where he believed doctors were careless about infecting other patients.

‚ÄúThere is no condition for those infected with the HIV virus. We were all treated together, positive and virus-free,” he said.

And in the chaos of war, bracelets aren’t much use, says 31-year-old Vadim, who was convicted of robbery and worked for Wagner before he was caught in the bunker. After Ukrainian soldiers threw several grenades into the bunker, Russian soldiers, including two HIV-positive men, hid in a corner. Three of the 10 soldiers in the bunker were killed and most of the others were wounded, Vadim said. He came out covered in blood. “I was always afraid of this disease,” he said in an interview at a Ukrainian detention center. After the exposure, he breathed a sigh of relief: he tested negative.

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Since the summer, about 50,000 prisoners have enlisted to fight in Ukraine, about 10 percent of the prison population, according to Russia Behind Bars, a nongovernmental group that monitors Russian prisons.

AIDS, hepatitis C and tuberculosis, including drug-resistant strains, are rampant in Russian prisons and penal colonies. About 10 percent of Russia’s incarcerated population is HIV positive, said Olga Romanova, director of Russia Behind Bars. About one-third of the total inmate population has at least one of these three infections, he said.

War as a lifetime

In interviews, HIV-positive POWs described being asked to demonstrate their fitness to serve by doing only push-ups in front of recruiting agents.

Ruslan, 42, was serving an 11-year sentence for drug trafficking when he joined Wagner in December. The drugs he was receiving in the penal colony did not suppress the virus and he feared for his life. Last year, he was bedridden for weeks due to pneumonia.

After joining Wagner, he had mild pneumonia during a training camp in January. A month later, he was sent in a human wave attack on Bahmuth and captured.

Ruslan says he welcomes Wagner’s policy of accepting HIV-positive prisoners. Thinking he would die anyway from his illness in prison, he accepted the first line for freedom and a chance for treatment.

“If you have a long sentence, it gives you a chance to start over,” he says.

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