Britain is considering sending a dozen Challenger II tanks, Poland is ready to supply German-build Leopard tanks, and other allies may offer similar military vehicles.
The UK defence chiefs stressed that Russia’s jail system had some 400,000 inmates and had “frequently been accused of extreme brutality and corruption”.
Putin’s “private army”, the Wagner Group, has recruited soldiers from prisons in Russia.
They are said to have suffered a high casualty rate in the war after being ordered into some of the fiercest battles against Ukrainian forces, including in Soledar in the eastern Donbas region, often with little training and allegedly facing execution if they retreat.
In its latest intelligence briefing, the Ministry of Defence in London said: “The Russian defence manufacturing sector is highly likely resorting to using convict labour in an effort to meet war-time production demands.
“In November 2022, Uralvagonzavod (UVZ), Russia’s largest tank manufacturer, told local media that it would employ 250 prisoners after meeting with the Federal Penal Service (FSIN).”
The briefing added: “There is a long tradition of prison labour in Russia, but since 2017 forced labour as a specific criminal punishment was reintroduced.
“With one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world, FSIN oversees a sprawling empire of over 400,000 inmates and has frequently been accused of extreme brutality and corruption.
“The prison population provides a unique human resource to Russian leaders to utilise in support of the ‘special military operation’ while willing volunteers remain in short supply.
“Convict labour will likely be particularly in demand from manufacturers of relatively low-tech weaponry such as UVZ, which are almost certainly under intense pressure from Moscow to increase their production.”
Britain, the US, Ukraine and its allies are fighting an information war against Moscow so their briefings need to be treated with caution, but are far more believable than the propaganda and denials issued by the Kremlin.