Russia’s Wagner mercenary group has stopped recruiting prisoners to fight in Ukraine, Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Thursday.

«The recruitment of prisoners by the private military company Wagner has completely stopped,» Prigozhin said in response to a request for comment from a Russian media outlet posted on social media.

“We are fulfilling all our obligations to those who work for us now,” he said.

Wagner began recruiting prisoners into Russia’s sprawling penal system in the summer of 2022, with Prigozhin, a caterer who served nine years in prison during the Soviet Union, offering convicts a reprieve if they survived six months in Ukraine.

Wagner has not provided information on how many convicts have joined his ranks, but Russian penal service figures released in November showed the country’s prison population fell by more than 20,000 between August and November, the biggest drop in more than a decade.

According to figures released in January, the decline had largely halted.

In December, Reuters reported that the US intelligence community believed Wagner had 40,000 convicted fighters deployed in Ukraine, making up the vast majority of the group’s personnel in the country.

The Wagner Group has played an increasingly prominent role in Russia’s war in Ukraine in recent months, with the mercenary force leading a months-long assault on the town of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region.

Previously secretive, Wagner and its founder Prigozhin have assumed an increasingly public profile in the context of the fighting in Ukraine, with Prigozhin criticizing Russia’s military leadership and certain officials.

In January, Russian state media published footage of Prigozhin meeting the first batch of convicted fighters to complete their terms in Ukraine and receive pardons.

In a video, Prigozhin was seen telling the fighters: «Remember that life has given you this opportunity: you did not dodge honor, you did not ruin it: you defended the Motherland, you were all ready to die in these past.» 180 days”.