An estimated 20 percent of Russia prisoner recruits are H.I.V. positive. To some, the front lines seemed less risky than prisons where they said they were denied effective treatments.
In Russian prisons, they said they were deprived of effective treatments for their H.I.V. On the battlefield in Ukraine, they were offered hope, with the promise of anti-viral medications if they agreed to fight.
It was a recruiting pitch that worked for many Russian prisoners.
About 20 percent of recruits in Russian prisoner units are H.I.V. positive, Ukrainian authorities estimate based on infection rates in captured soldiers. Serving on the front lines seemed less risky than staying in prison, the detainees said in interviews with The New York Times.
“Conditions were very harsh” in Russian prison, said Timur, 37, an H.I.V.-positive Russian soldier interviewed at a detention site in the city of Dnipro in central Ukraine, and identified only by a first name, worried that he would face retaliation if he returned to Russia in a prisoner swap.
After he was sentenced to 10 years for drug dealing, the doctors in the Russian prison changed the anti-viral medication he had been taking to control H.I.V. to types he feared were not effective, Timur said.
He said he did not think he could survive a decade in Russian prison with H.I.V. In December, he agreed to serve six months in the Wagner mercenary group in exchange for a pardon and supplies of anti-viral medications.
“I understood I would have a quick death or a slow death,” he said of choosing between poor H.I.V. treatment in prison and participating in assaults in Russia’s war in Ukraine. “I chose a quick death.”
Timur had no military experience and was provided two weeks of training before deployment to the front, he said. He was issued a Kalashnikov rifle, 120 bullets, an armored vest and a helmet for the assault. Before sending the soldiers forward, he said, commanders “repeated many times, ‘if you try to leave this field, we will shoot you.’”
Soldiers in his platoon, he said, were sent on a risky assault, waves of soldiers with little chance of survival sent into battle on the outskirts of the eastern city of Bakhmut. Most were killed on their first day of combat. Timur was captured.
Units of former prisoners have made up the bulk of forces in Russia’s attack on Bakhmut, one of the bloodiest and longest-running battles in the war. Beginning on a wide scale last summer, inmates were promised pardons for going into combat.
Those with H.I.V. or hepatitis C were forced to identify their status in a very public manner.
When captured by Ukrainian soldiers, many wore red or white rubber wristbands, or both, signifying they had either disease, both widespread in the Russian prison system. They were made to wear the wristbands ostensibly as a warning to other soldiers in case they were wounded, although they would not necessarily be infectious if properly medicated.
Anti-viral medication can indefinitely treat H.I.V. and suppress the virus to the point where an individual is not infectious. Ukraine allows those who are H.I.V. positive to serve in combat roles with approval from their commanders. The United States does not allow people who are H.I.V. positive to enlist, but lets soldiers who become infected continue to serve while receiving treatment.
“If a person is in treatment, and continues treatment, the virus can be undetectable and he can serve, he can work and is not dangerous to those around him,” said Dr. Iryna Dizha, a medical adviser to 100 Percent Life, an H.I.V. advocacy group in Ukraine.
The wristbands pose a risk to those wearing them. They are intended to protect other soldiers from infection if the wearer suffers a bloody battlefield wound, the prisoners of war said. Reluctance of fellow soldiers or medics to be exposed to the blood, however, could delay first aid.
Another H.I.V.-positive prisoner of war who fought in the Wagner group, Yevgeny, said that he had suffered a gunshot wound a month before his capture by Ukrainian forces, according to a videotaped interrogation by Ukraine’s domestic intelligence agency that was reviewed by The Times. He had received timely medical help despite wearing a red bracelet, he said, but was treated in a hospital where he felt doctors were careless about infecting other patients.
“There were no conditions for the H.I.V. infected,” he said. “We were all treated together, the healthy and the unhealthy.”
And in the chaos of battle the bracelets serve little purpose, said Vadim, 31, who was convicted of robbery and served in Wagner before being captured in a bunker.
After Ukrainian soldiers tossed several hand grenades into the bunker, the Russian soldiers, including two who were H.I.V. positive, hunkered in a corner. Three of 10 soldiers in the bunker were killed and most others wounded, Vadim said. He emerged splattered with blood. “I was always afraid of this disease,” he said in an interview at a Ukrainian detention site. After the exposure, he tested negative.
Since the summer, about 50,000 prisoners have signed up to fight in Ukraine, roughly 10 percent of the incarcerated population, according to Russia Behind Bars, a nongovernmental group monitoring Russian prisons.
Ukraine’s military intelligence agency said in a statement last fall that some captured soldiers had H.I.V. and hepatitis C. The domestic intelligence agency has made available videos of interrogations with Wagner prisoners of war describing H.I.V. infection and showing red bracelets. The Ukrainian authorities provide anti-viral medicine to H.I.V.-positive prisoners of war.
H.I.V., hepatitis C and tuberculosis, including drug-resistant strains, are prevalent in Russian prisons and penal colonies. About 10 percent of Russia’s incarcerated population is H.I.V.-positive, said Olga Romanova, the director of Russia Behind Bars. About a third of the total inmate population has at least one of those three infections, she said.
In interviews, H.I.V.-positive prisoners of war said they were asked only to do push-ups before a recruiter to prove their fitness to serve.
Ruslan, 42, had served one year of an 11-year sentence for drug dealing when he joined Wagner in December. The medications he received in a penal colony were not suppressing the virus, he said, and he feared for his life.
Last year, he had been bedridden for weeks with pneumonia. Ruslan said that after joining Wagner he had a mild bout of pneumonia at a training camp in January. A month later, he was sent on a human wave assault in Bakhmut and was captured.
Ruslan said he welcomed Wagner’s policy of accepting H.I.V.-positive inmates. He said he thought he would die in any case from his illness in prison and accepted the frontline for a chance at freedom and treatment.
“If you have a long sentence,” he said, “it gives you a chance to begin life again.”
by Andrew E. Kramer
Source – The New York Times