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Russian Armed Forces infantry training. 18 April 2022.

‘Freeing them from the motherland’s tenacious grip’ Russian soldiers are refusing to fight in Ukraine. Lawyer Maxim Grebenyuk is helping defend their rights.

Source: Meduza
Russian Armed Forces infantry training. 18 April 2022.
Russian Armed Forces infantry training. 18 April 2022.
Sergey Fadeichev / TASS

As Russia’s war against Ukraine grinds on, stories continue to appear in the press about Russian soldiers refusing to perform military service to avoid joining the fight. The most recent, high-profile case occurred in early April, when a local publication reported that around 60 soldiers from Pskov were refusing to go to war. Since then, these soldiers have been discharged and threatened with criminal prosecution. A few dozen of these “objectors” are being advised by lawyer Maxim Grebenyuk, who runs the online community Military Ombudsman. Meduza sits down with Maxim Grebenyuk to talk about why Russian soldiers are refusing to fight in Ukraine.

Maxim Grebenyuk

What were you doing before you started the Military Ombudsman initiative?

I served in a Northern Fleet Marine Corps Brigade. First as a medic, then I obtained a law degree online, with honours, and my brigade commander asked me to assist him on legal matters. I started helping the commander and soldiers in the brigade and filed lawsuits for them when their rights were infringed upon. Then I was dismissed, and I moved to the Military Prosecutor’s Office. I was there for 10 years. I was responsible for the social side, more focused on helping soldiers. I tried to be very responsive to their complaints. 

I created the social media group Military Ombudsman when I was still an aide to the military prosecutor, but initially I was an anonymous admin. I advised military personnel on a pro bono basis. In December 2021 I resigned from the Military Prosecutor’s Office and passed an exam to qualify as a lawyer in Primorsky Krai. Now I live in Moscow with my family, and I work here, specializing in military cases.

Why did you resign from the prosecutor’s office?

The Military Prosecutor’s Office should work to protect military personnel and their rights, but its priority is protecting the state’s interests, the military budget. And when there is some kind of tension between the state interests and the rights of military personnel, then the military prosecutor always sides with the state. I wanted to protect the rights of military personnel rights, I found that a lot more interesting. I resigned when there were massive protests a year and a half ago.

You mean the pro-Navalny protests?

Yes, it was then that I really understood that I do actually need to change something in my life. As a lawyer and a prosecutor’s office functionary, I was always very interested in his [Navalny’s anti-corruption] investigations. The documents and other pieces of evidence in them seemed absolutely flawless from a legal perspective. You’d be surprised but many of my former colleagues agree with me on that.

His poisoning and arrest were the final straw for me. I understood that I can’t work in law enforcement anymore. Before then, I thought that I could effect some change from within, by helping people. But I was mistaken. I understood the system would just chew you up and spit you out. So I decided to leave.

Why do you call yourself the Military Ombudsman?

I was inspired by the Police Ombudsman project by Vladimir Vorontsov. I followed him intently and still do. I think that Vorontsov, just like Navalny, is a prisoner of conscience.

Aren’t you scared that you will also face criminal charges over your work, like Vorontsov?

Of course, but the truth matters more.

What problems do military personnel come to you with now?

Now there are problems with provisions [just like before the war]. For example, I posted about military personnel being issued with food rations that are past their use-by date.

The injured also come to me, people suffering from concussions. They were only treated a bit, they were given fluids and told to go back to fight. They refused, asked to be treated first, and were told: “No, you’re not quite getting it. The motherland is in danger, go and serve.” I also help them; we’ll go to court to get them the appropriate medical care first.

Yes, I think that we shouldn’t send soldiers to die there. That’s my personal opinion. But as a lawyer, I support (the law) and those soldiers who followed orders and went there.

Are many soldiers coming to you now?

Many more than before. Some soldiers are being discharged for refusing to participate in the “special military operation.” Others [who refuse] are threatened with criminal cases, which shouldn’t even be remotely possible. They make it more frightening by weaving in treason and desertion. Soldiers are very scared when they write to me and call me. These are overwhelming issues, and there are a lot of them.

Do conscripts who were sent to Ukraine reach out to you?

You could say that, yes. I went to the Bryansk region as a lawyer. There, the mother [of a conscript] was really frightened that her son would be sent to Ukraine. The unit there is near the border. I went to see this soldier at the base together with his mother and had a conversation with his commander about there being a decree from the commander-in-chief that prevents sending conscripts to take part in the “special operation” in Ukraine. He heard me out. The conscript remained at the unit’s permanent base.

So it’s possible to do some work and free individual soldiers from the motherland’s tenacious grip.

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Before the start of the all-out war with Ukraine, did you get more inquiries from contract soldiers who went to fight in Syria, for example?

There were barely any requests about Syria. There are hardly any violations of soldiers’ rights there, they look after them and pay them approximately the same as in Ukraine right now.

How much are military personnel fighting in Ukraine paid?

Around 5,000–10,000 rubles [$73–$146] per day [for participating in the “special military operation”]. That’s in addition to their official salary.

You said that now you get more inquiries from “objectors” than anybody else. Approximately many inquiries like this are you getting now?

Right now, I’m in correspondence and having calls with several dozen such people, closer to 100. And most often for each individual there is a whole group of other soldiers he shares the information with after he’s consulted me. But I can only give details when the court considers their cases for reinstatement.

What kind of soldiers are refusing to go to Ukraine?

I can’t answer you because I am in Russia and I don’t want to “discredit” the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

Has anyone from the military’s higher ranks reached out to you for help because they don’t want to take part in the war?

Yes, I helped the captain of a reconnaissance company, I can’t share the details.

Can military personnel be prosecuted for refusing to take part in the war?

Well, in peacetime it’s rather problematic to carry out criminal prosecution for disobeying orders. But I can’t say that it’s impossible to bring criminal charges. Failure to carry out an order is only a crime if it results in material consequences, or if a combat mission is disrupted. This is covered in Criminal Code Article 332, Part 1 (Failure to Execute an Order). For example, [if] a soldier who was defending the barracks dropped his weapon and ran away, and the barracks burnt down.

But how does one classify this “harm” on Ukrainian soil? It’s very hard. For example, “harm” could mean disrupting a combat mission, incurring casualties among our troops, or failing to achieve strategic goals. But still, there has not yet been a single criminal case, and I think I know why.


Because it will all end up in the media. If there are criminal cases over the failure of certain missions, that would mean that something in the army didn’t go according to plan.

According to the norms of criminal procedure legislation, if a criminal case is lodged against a soldier, he must be issued a copy of the decision to launch the case. And that must include details of the “significant harm” his actions caused to the interests of the service. Everyone would know that a particular combat mission was disrupted. The coverage of this would undermine the authority of the command, should the case become public. The soldier could be interviewed by journalists and would have a lot of very interesting information to share with them.

Then the internal resistance among regular soldiers will increase if they are faced with criminal cases. So that is why the state isn’t taking this step yet. But I make it clear to everyone that it is, theoretically, possible.

Many Russian soldiers who were taken prisoner have said that on February 24, they were told they are being sent on training exercises, but were then ordered to join the “military operation.” Is that true? Have people like that been in touch with you?

Yes, of course. I am preparing a case on their behalf at the moment. They were told that it was only drills and it turned out to be a “special military operation.” Among them are people who refused to go into Ukraine and those who did, spent some time there, and left.

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What do they say to you about why they don’t want to go back there?

I can’t answer [that], because in doing so I could “discredit” the Armed Forces and my words could create the impression that we are fighting like idiots there. I don’t want to say anything like that.

But it’s one thing to win and it’s another thing to die. Very many refused after the “special operation” started, when their comrades started to die. However, “objectors were threatened with criminal cases — there was shouting, stamping of feet, and appeals were made to the Military Prosecutor’s Office.

What happens to those who have refused?

Most of them are dismissed. Some are sent on leave, because by law, before they are dismissed, soldiers must be offered all of the leave they are owed and only then can they be discharged from their units. So many of those who were dismissed are still on leave.

And they don’t sack all of them. In some cases, there is such a large share of people who refuse, there will be nobody left to serve if they dismiss them all. So, they make an example of a couple of those who refuse.

I also have people who were not sacked after refusing. One was serving with the FSB as a driver with military counter-intelligence. He was reinstated. They frightened him, shouted at him, but nothing else happened, he still drives for them.

You wrote that some of those who are dismissed have their service records stamped with “prone to treachery, deceit, and lies.”

I got so much hate for that, for those stamps. I was accused of spreading false information, [there were claims] that this first appeared in Ukrainian Telegram channels. No, it appeared with me. A soldier came to me complaining about that stamp.

Do people often come to you about that?

No, it is probably the personal initiative of several commanders. I was recently shown a military service card with notes that the soldier refused to take part in the “special military operation” and is therefore being dismissed for “failing to fulfil the terms of [their] contract.” That is the same thing, just a softer way of putting it. They make that kind of note in the service records or on a military service card, to ruin these soldiers’ lives. This note is not based on anything, it is unlawful, and you can request to have it annulled. I’ll be working on that.

How could it ruin soldiers’ lives?

It will impact a soldier’s future employment options, when he, for example, wants to join another military unit, the police, the Federal Penitentiary Service, or any other law enforcement body. The only leverage these commanders have is to shout and threaten criminal cases, but in reality they can only sack them.

Many want to be dismissed, but their commanders need to respond to it somehow, and so they don’t have anything else they can do but shout or threaten, and write these notes.

Do the relatives of dead or injured soldiers reach out to you? For example, for help getting compensation?

Yes, as I said, there are injured and concussed soldiers who feel that the medical help they’ve received is insufficient. There’s a request from the wife of a soldier with serious brain injuries, who can’t get compensation.

What about the relatives of those killed?


Based on your observations, is there a growing number of contract soldiers, or are their numbers falling, given the dismissals?

Many recruitment offices are currently looking to recruit soldiers on short-term contracts. I can’t speak to the influx, but the numbers of those leaving the service are, I think, very high.

Most of those who are going [to Ukraine] for the first time…They want to “de-Nazify,” “demilitarize,” and “liberate” — and many are even ready to kill. It’s just that by no means are all of them ready to die.

When a soldier understands that the reality is that you can be killed, at any moment, for many this is a sobering thought. Many start to reconsider their need to participate. Because Ukrainians know what they are dying for, that’s what their fearlessness is rooted in. When our grandfathers fought, they knew what they were dying for. But not all of our soldiers understand why their deaths are necessary.

What do the people who contact you say about the war? For example, after they’ve been wounded or dismissed?

Some are still convinced that they’re fighting Nazism. I can’t say that everyone who has served in this war thinks it’s all in vain. There are people who want to go back — they just want to get some payouts and are ready to continue taking part in it. But they are the minority.

The rest on the whole say that the locals were not pleased to see them there. They also say that they’re not encountering isolated groups of “Nazis,” as they had been told, but regular, full-fledged armed forces. They understand it is not quite like what they were told and that these are not “Nazis” but a nation that is defending its state.

What do you think about the war?

I think that our boys shouldn’t have anything to do with the “special operation.” I was on the Ukrainian border in 2014 for a work trip, back when I was the Prosecutor’s aide. I saw how the LNR and DNR [the Luhansk and Donetsk “People’s Republics] were created, so I consider the grounds for this war absolutely artificial. But let me again say, this is my personal opinion. I am not urging anyone to do anything.

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Interview by Katerina Orlova

Translation by Sian Glaessner