A video has emerged appearing to show a top ally of Vladimir Putin personally recruiting alleged Russian prisoners to fight in Ukraine and offering them pardons to do so.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, who runs Wagner, a private military company heavily engaged in Ukraine, is purportedly seen speaking to a group of men at a Russian prison about joining its forces in Ukraine. A company owned by Prigozhin issued a sarcastic message appearing to confirm it is him in the footage.
In the video circulating online, a man who appears to closely resemble Prigozhin is seen addressing a crowd of dozens of inmates in the yard of a prison camp. The man in the video promises the prisoners will receive a pardon of their sentences in return for joining Wagner and fighting in Ukraine for six months.
"Who do we need? We only need assault infantry, 60% of my guys are that," the man seen in the video tells the inmates. "After half a year, you go home, having got a pardon."
Prigozhin, often nicknamed "Putin's Chef" because of a catering company he operates, appears to warn the group that if they sign up and refuse to fight, they would be seen as a deserter and be killed.
"The first sin is desertion. No one falls back, no one surrenders as a prisoner," the man seen in the video says. "Those who arrive and on the first day say, 'I shouldn't be here,' we mark as a deserter and next, it's the firing squad."
In addition to being heavily involved in the fighting in Ukraine, Wagner also ran the Internet Research Agency that conducted a disinformation campaign aimed at interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The U.S. Department of Justice charged Prigozhin over the agency's campaign to meddle in the election with propaganda and disinformation. In March, the U.S. also sanctioned Prigozhin in response to Putin's invasion of Ukraine.
In the video, the man tells the group he is mainly looking for men between the ages of 22 and 50, but that the key criteria is physical strength.
They look closely at those with drug and sexual violence convictions, warning that there is no tolerance for looting or sex with local people, "women, local flora, fauna, men," the man in the video says.
The man seen in the video also tells the prisoners he will personally interview those wanting to sign up for five minutes before they undergo 2-3 hours of more questioning to see if they are suitable.
The press service for Prigozhin's catering company, Concord, appeared to confirm it was him in the video.
In a written response posted on its VKontakte, or VK -- Russian social media service -- page, it wrote: "We really can confirm that the person in the video is miraculously similar to Evgeny Viktorovich [Prigozhin]. Judging by his rhetoric, he is in someway dealing with questions of the realisation of the Special Operation and, it looks like, it's going successfully for him," it wrote, referring to the term the Kremlin uses for the invasion.
There have been widespread reports of Russia recruiting prisoners to fill a worsening manpower shortage for its forces following severe losses since the country invaded Ukraine in February.
Just this week, Ukrainian forces made a major breakthrough in the Kharkiv region, capturing strategically important cities, according to Ukrainian officials and military sources. Ukrainian troops advanced 70 kilometers (43 miles) in less than a week, resulting in part of Russia's front-line collapse in Ukraine's northeast, with large numbers of Russian troops forced to retreat.
Russia is running short on troops because Putin has refused to call a general mobilization or put the country on a war footing, worried about possible domestic unrest.
Wagner has previously been used in global conflicts, including in Ukraine, when the Kremlin has sought a veneer of deniability.
Wagner troops have been documented fighting in Syria, as well as several African countries, including Libya and the Central African Republic, and have been accused on numerous occasions of committing war crimes.
In the current Ukraine war, they have become crucial shock troops, according to Western and Ukrainian officials, as well as Russian military journalists on the ground, that have been used to try to take ground in Donbas.
The man seen in the video -- purportedly Prigozhin -- tells the prisoners it's a "hard war" in Ukraine, worse than in Chechnya or Afghanistan, claiming that he is using more than twice the amount of ammunition fired in the battle of Stalingrad in World War II. He claims to have large amounts of military hardware, including "aircraft" and artillery.