A secretive assault force called Storm Gladiator, made up of convicts sprung from prison by the Russian Defense Ministry to fight in Ukraine, has been involved in some of the most brutal engagements in the war and has suffered heavy casualties, RFE/RL’s Russian investigative unit has found.
The investigative unit, Systema, spoke to former members, relatives, and other people with knowledge of Storm Gladiator, forming a detailed picture of its history, commanders, and recruitment practices, as well as its place among the other assault units under the Defense Ministry.
Gladiator is considered an elite special forces unit and is grouped among the military’s other assault units, also comprised of convicts, under the collective designation Storm Z.
In addition, Systema uncovered strong indications that Gladiator and the military’s other convict-based assault units are being reorganized under legislation signed by President Vladimir Putin in June 2023. Gladiator may be in the process of being disbanded.
Leopards And Bobcats
In the fall of 2023, Russia launched offensive operations simultaneously at several points along the front line in Ukraine in a bid to secure new positions before the onset of winter. The military’s Storm Z assault forces, including Gladiator, played leading roles in the fighting.
“At first, we trained with Storm Z,” one former soldier told Systema. “Then [commanders] showed up and selected guys for the Gladiator subunit. All of us were from prisons.”
Dmitry Knayev, a Russian soldier who was taken prisoner in Ukraine and interviewed in a video posted on pro-Ukrainian social media channels in December, told a similar story, saying he was serving seven years for manslaughter when he was recruited and sent to Storm Z, from which he was selected for Gladiator.
Sources close to Gladiator said men were selected based on their physical condition, their unmarried status, and their military or law enforcement experience. Initial training was carried out by instructors from the mercenary group Wagner or the Chechnya-based Akhmat special forces detachment.
“They are given ‘difficult targets,’” a relative of a Gladiator fighter said. Like several other people cited in this report, the relative spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions.
Gladiator participated in the fighting around the village of Robotyne, in Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhzhya region, where Ukrainian forces attempted to break through Russian lines and push toward the Azov Sea coast in a counteroffensive that fell far short of its goals last year.
One Gladiator fighter said the unit lost up to 60 percent of its members in three months of intense fighting last autumn.”
“The main work was carried out by our neighbors, colleagues, and comrades from Storm Gladiator,” Daniil Tulenkov, a former convict and fighter with Storm Z, wrote in a December 20, 2023, post on Telegram. “They are also Storm Z – they are attached to our regiment but operate as a separate unit…. The Gladiators are the main assault force. Our unit was a bit lower in status. To use an image, it is like a leopard and a bobcat.”
Storm Z, he continued, was mainly engaged in transportation and logistics, while the Gladiator soldiers were “fierce attackers.”
As a result, Gladiator has suffered heavy casualties, sources told Systema. One Gladiator fighter said the unit lost up to 60 percent of its members in three months of intense fighting last autumn – a toll that includes fighters killed or wounded but not those missing in action or taken as prisoners of war. Since the beginning of 2024, evidence suggests Gladiator is being disbanded and its surviving soldiers assigned to other units.
In June 2023, Major General Ivan Popov issued an audio message to his troops to announce his dismissal as commander of the 58th Army. The address was posted on Telegram by Andrei Gurulyov, a lawmaker from the ruling United Russia party who served as deputy commander of Russia’s Southern Military District from 2016 to 2019.
Systema’s examination of documents from the Gladiator unit confirmed that it was part of the 58th Army.
“Good evening, my beloved gladiators, beloved, all one family,” said the general, who uses the military call sign Spartak. He said that he had been removed from his post after complaining to the military command about “problematic issues” that he felt needed to be resolved.
According to the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War, Popov had complained to Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov about the need to rotate frontline troops. Soon thereafter, he was sent to Syria, where Russia has a large military presence.
Popov was replaced as commander of the 58th Army by Lieutenant General Denis Lyamin, who was one of the signatories of the Defense Ministry’s paper On Storm Z, fragments of which were published by the investigative media outlet IStories in October. Systema obtained the complete document, dated February 2023, which outlines the creation of assault groups comprising convicts. The document authorizes commanders to shoot soldiers “in order to ensure discipline and order” if they refuse to follow orders or abandon their positions without authorization.
In November, the newspaper Vecherny Stavropol published an article that said an officer it described as the commander of the Gladiators, Colonel Aslan Shurdumov, had come to town to accept two boxes of warm socks knitted by 88-year-old retiree Valentina Potyomkina and her daughter.
“I really wanted to personally shake the hand of this granny,” Shurdumov was quoted as saying. “I understand that [in these socks] there is concern, pain, and emotion. They will not only warm the feet of our warriors, but more importantly, their souls.”
The scene was a far cry from a night in November 2013 when a 23-year-old man was shot to death and his body burned in a car in a case that shook the Baksansky district of the North Caucasus region of Kabardino-Balkaria. In November 2015, Shurdumov was convicted of the crime and sentenced to 12 years in prison, a term that was reduced on appeal to 10 years.
In late October, Gladiator soldiers gathered to celebrate the birthday of the unit’s chief of staff, a major using the military call sign Kornet. A video of the occasion was posted on Telegram. Systema was able to identify Kornet as Vladislav Olensky, a former lawyer and investigator with the Federal Security Service (FSB) who was sentenced in 2019 to 12 years in prison for bribery and extortion.
From Z To V
In February 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin — the Wagner head who was killed in a suspicious plane crash in August, two months after he led a short-lived mutiny against the military leadership — announced that Wagner would no longer recruit fighters from Russian prisons. Defense Ministry recruiters had already been working in the prisons since the autumn of 2022. By April 2023, the ministry was looking to recruit at least 1,400 inmates into Z assault groups, each of about 100 men.
The pay and benefits for the convict-soldiers were worse than those of normal contract soldiers or mobilized soldiers, but they were ensured a presidential amnesty following the completion of their contract.
However, on June 24, 2023, Putin signed a law on the recruitment of convicts to contract service with the Defense Ministry, and the new system based on the law became operational in September. According to the BBC’s Russian Service, prisoners recruited under the new law were being assigned to units under a new designation, Storm V. Under the new law, instead of a presidential amnesty, the convict-soldiers are granted conditional early release, and they are paid similar wages to those of regular contract soldiers — about 200,000 rubles ($2,240) a month.
The new contracts are formally for one year, but since the convict-recruits are considered “the same as contract soldiers,” their service can be extended until the end of the invasion, which the Kremlin euphemistically calls a “special military operation.”
In January, Mediazona and the BBC reported that more than 7,800 recruited Russian convicts had been killed fighting in Ukraine since the full-scale invasion was launched in February 2022./RFE/