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‘We have no idea who we’re fighting for’ How Russia threatens contract soldiers who refuse to fight in Ukraine
Moscow has yet to confirm the exact number of Russian soldiers currently fighting in Ukraine. According to various estimates, Russia’s full-scale invasion has involved up to 100,000 troops. In interviews with Meduza, several relatives of contract soldiers said that it’s impossible for them to resign from military service — those that attempt to quit are threatened with criminal charges of desertion and treason. Meduza correspondent Sasha Sivtsova reports on how Russian soldiers are being sent into Ukraine and how they’re forced to stay there.
‘We stoked the stove and guarded a military vehicle’
Ivan, a Kemerovo resident, was born in 2001 (Meduza is withholding his last name for safety reasons). Instead of carrying out compulsory military service, Ivan enlisted as a contract soldier. He wanted to earn money — he was given a monthly salary of 31,000 rubles ($480) — and he was promised that he would be stationed close to home. He thought he’d be able to go to “work” at nine o’clock in the morning and return by six o’clock in the evening.
Ivan signed the contract on November 1. He was sent to Yurga, a town not far from Kemerovo, to serve in Military Unit No. 21005. He was there until the end of December, when he was sent to Yelnya, a town in the Smolensk region, for training. Until mid-February he was “in the fields.” Ivan’s mother Svetlana A. remembers her son telling her: “We weren’t going through any training; we stoked the stove and guarded whatever was around: a military vehicle and equipment.”
In mid-February, Ivan and his fellow soldiers were relocated: they passed through the Bryansk region, clueless as to their final destination. There, Svetlana said, the military vehicle carrying her son and the other soldiers collided with a truck. “They remained there for some time. Probably they were already headed to Ukraine, but they did not know that yet.”
The next time Ivan called Svetlana was on February 23; he said this was the last call he was allowed to make and he wouldn’t have cell service for the following week or so. He and the other soldiers hadn’t been told where they were going. “They said nothing, only that they were on the move,” Svetlana recalled.
Why contract soldiers are in a worse situation than Russian conscripts
Anton Shcherbak, a lawyer for the human rights organization Soldiers’ Mothers of Saint-Petersburg, believes that contract soldiers are now in worse position than Russian conscripts. Those who are drafted can only be sent into combat after four months of service and training in their military specialties. Moreover, Russian president Vladimir Putin stated that the conscripts were not participating in the “special operation” (despite reports to the contrary — Meduza wrote about it here). According to Shcherbak, there are no regulatory restrictions that would allow contract soldiers to refuse to take part in combat operations in another country. The lawyer also said that although there is a three-month probationary period, there are no stipulations preventing contract soldiers from being sent into combat during this period.
‘They had been abandoned’
Svetlana’s son didn’t call her again until March 6. “When he called [from a borrowed phone], I looked up the area code. It turned out to be Ukrainian. The sound quality was terrible, I could barely recognize his voice. He said he borrowed a phone from a local villager,” she told Meduza. The next call from Ivan came almost two weeks later, on March 19. “He wouldn’t say where he was and how many people were with him. ‘It’s classified, I can’t say,’ [Ivan said]. We didn’t know where he was,” Svetlana recalled.
Svetlana tried calling her son’s military unit in Yurga. But they would either hang up on her or demand that she file a formal inquiry about her son’s whereabouts through the Defense Ministry. Svetlana decided against the inquiry, deeming it useless. “Someone I know submitted an inquiry, they got a response [that said] ‘he’s alive and well’ and nothing more,” she explained.
At the end of March, Ivan called Svetlana again, this time from Russia, using his own phone. At the time, Russian forces had started to regroup, in order to “enhance action on priority areas and complete the operation for the total liberation of Donbas,” as was stated by the Defense Ministry. Ivan said he had been near the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, but had since left the region.
“He spoke so openly! I asked him: ‘Are you allowed to give away these details?’ He said, ‘In general they don’t really care.’ I asked, ‘What did you eat?’ ‘We ate anything we could find in the cellars that were left behind by Ukrainian troops. We slept in random houses, we came under fire several times.’ When they crossed into Russian territory, they [Ivan and his fellow soldiers] said that they would rather go to prison than back [to Ukraine]: ‘We have no idea who we’re fighting against or fighting for, or how we’re doing it.’ I don’t want to criticize the army. I don’t know if they had a commanding officer with them; they aren’t allowed to disclose this over the phone. But I concluded that they had been abandoned,” Svetlana said.
According to Svetlana, her son and some other soldiers filed requests to terminate their contracts and switch to conscript service. At first, Ivan said there were only a few of them who decided to do this, 11 people in total. They were promised they’d be sent back to Yurga.
“But more and more people joined in. In the end, there were about 250 people from two battalions [who wanted to terminate their contracts]. Then an FSB officer and a prosecutor paid them a visit. They told the guys they were under threat of criminal charges [for refusing to follow orders and to continue serving as contract soldiers],” Svetlana said.
Following the “pressure from the prosecutor’s office” — as Svetlana recalls her son putting it — all 250 soldiers, including Ivan, filled out new paperwork where they agreed to continue taking part in the “special operation” and went back to war.
“A refusal [to serve] starts an avalanche. It’s those who are ready that refuse first, but there are lots of hesitant ones,” Anton Shcherbak, a lawyer for the human rights organization Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg, explained. “If they see their fellow soldiers aren’t sent off, but they themselves are, then they can revolt. It snowballs from there.”
Threats, humiliation, intimidation
Svetlana B.’s 20-year-old son Alexey found himself in a similar situation as Ivan. In November 2021, Alexey also went “on contract” instead of enlisting as a conscript. In December, his company was sent to the Smolensk region to “guard a facility.” They stayed there until February 20. Then, they were deployed to the Bryansk region, closer to the Ukrainian border. He stopped answering his phone after February 22. Forty days later, he called from a borrowed phone to say, “Mom, I am ok, I am alive.”
For those 40 days, Svetlana B. was in the dark about her son and “tying herself up in knots.” At the end of February, she joined a WhatsApp group for the relatives of soldiers in Alexey’s brigades. “That’s where I learned he [was] in Ukraine. Of course I panicked. How? What? Why? They just finished their probation,” Svetlana recalled.
Only the WhatsApp group’s administrator was allowed to post messages — according to Svetlana, the administrator was a soldier from the unit. In the mornings, he posted an impersonal general update on how the brigade was doing, but didn’t say anything concrete. The relatives would see messages such as:
- “The day passed with no changes”
- “The day passed relatively calmly”
- “No negative information throughout the day”
- “There was fighting, there is negative information”
“Negative information” would appear about three times a week, said Svetlana. This meant that the unit had soldiers killed, wounded, or missing in action. The details were given only to specific relatives, not to the entire group.
Starting in April, when the troops were regrouping, Svetlana and her son began calling each other again. He was near Rovny, a town in the Belgorod region. He told his mother that before the war, in February, they weren’t given any prior warning. “They were told they’d be two or three days: they’d go into [Ukrainian territory] and leave, or they’d be stationed on the border and then leave,” recalled Svetlana. Her son didn’t say what exactly the servicemen did in Ukraine.
According to Svetlana, the command told Alexey and his fellow soldiers that there would soon be a second deployment of forces to Ukraine — and that, if they so desired, military personnel could file paperwork declining to take part in the “special operation.” Her son decided to do so. “I don’t know what was behind the command giving this option. Maybe they expected there wouldn’t be so many [objectors]. Later they announced that there were 97 soldiers in one battalion and about 150 in the other. Then the pressure from the command, the commander of the [Central Military District], and the [Central Military District] Prosecutor’s Office started. They started persecuting the boys,” said Svetlana.
Lawyer Anton Shcherbak said that there’s a wide range of people in the army who can carry out these “interventions.” This includes anyone who’s higher-up: unit commanders, district commanders, prosecutors, and FSB officers. “Any one of them can come in and frighten. This isn’t stipulated by law in any way; it neither prohibits nor allows such actions. Later, they will explain it away as just having a conversation, but in reality, it would most likely include psychological violence, threats, humiliation, and intimidation. Sometimes they might even throw in a ‘carrot.’ They can promise anything,” explained the lawyer.
According to Svetlana B., her son and others were threatened with criminal prosecution and imprisonment for desertion and refusing to follow orders:
“Is this really what our kids want? For their lives to be in shambles at 20? No, of course not. But if there’s an option to serve on a contract instead of compulsory military service, without being trained first, they should be on equal footing as the ones who are drafted, right? They had no training, they are basically recruits. They didn’t run away or abandon the unit; they have been there [to Ukraine] once and do not want to go back. But they talked to them for several hours. I can’t imagine how much pressure that was. All of the boys signed their consent under pressure. We [their parents] were all in shock.”
In the end, the soldiers left their base in Russia on April 19, and there hasn’t been any contact with them since. Before his deployment, Svetlana B. asked her son where he was being sent. He said he was going to the border with the Luhansk region, to load and unload ammunition.
“He said, ‘don’t worry Mom.’ He was trying to calm me down. But what can he do? Command is command. You can’t refuse, you can’t run — it would make things worse,” Svetlana said.
How contract soldiers are intimidated
Lawyer Anton Shcherbak said that the main form of intimidation is the threat of a criminal case for failure to execute an order (under Russian Criminal Code Article 332). The penalties under this article include a restriction in military service for two years, up to six months in jail, or a two-year term in a disciplinary battalion. If a group of people have failed to comply with an order, they can face imprisonment for up to five years. “They call the sentences long to intimidate. They also threaten dismissal for non-fulfilment of the terms of a contract, deprivation of benefits, and poor performance reports,” the lawyer said.
Furthermore, according to Shcherbak, the command can threaten prosecution under Criminal Code Article 337: “Unauthorized abandonment of a military unit for a short time.” This is punishable by up to six months in jail; if the soldier was “AWOL” for less than a month, this is punishable by up to three years in prison. If a soldier hasn’t reported to their unit for more than a month, he can be imprisoned for up to five years. Desertion (Criminal Code Article 338) is punishable by up to seven years in prison.
“[To be charged with desertion] you need to run away and commit actions that would indicate that you are completely evading the duties of military service. You need to run away, change your documents, get another job — make it clear that you are not planning to serve in any way. It happens that people are on the run for a month, but when they are detained they are considered AWOL and not deserters,” Shcherbak explained.
In February, a 25-year-old contract soldier named Albert Sakhibgareyev fled the Russian army. His brigade had been stationed in the Belgorod region, a few kilometers away from the Ukrainian border, for “training.” Sakhibgareyev realized it wasn’t an exercise, but a real war, only when the Ukrainian side returned fire.
Sakhibgareyev left his unit not long afterwards, primarily due to conflicts with a Senior Warrant Officer named Vladislav Tikhonov. According to the soldier, the commander attacked him and broke his arm. “Why should I serve with someone who would attack his own?” Sakhibgareyev told Meduza. He hitchhiked back to his hometown of Ufa and hired a lawyer. Sakhibgareyev also filed a voluntary resignation letter, in which he explained that he was “forced to leave the military unit because he was concerned for his life and health and did not want to continue taking part in combat on Ukrainian territory as it goes against his beliefs.”
Sakhibgareyev was prepared to serve a sentence — the main thing for him was to be discharged from military service. But after he filed his resignation, the command offered to second him to a military unit in Ufa while an investigation was underway.
Sakhibgareyev agreed to return to his permanent duty station and is still there now. He still hasn’t been able to terminate his contract. Sakhibgareyev’s lawyer Almaz Nabiyev explained that a resignation letter doesn’t unconditionally terminate a contract; the unit commander must first receive a reasoned explanation from the soldier. Then, the commander must send a dismissal letter to the command of the military district, together with his written opinion on the case and the testimony of the contract soldier. Only then does the district command make a final decision.
“The law doesn’t specify the time frame in which this should happen,” Sakhibgareyev’s lawyer explained. “So the commander might not even forward the resignation letter up the chain.”
Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg head Oksana Paramonova confirmed that a serviceman wanting to terminate his contract isn’t enough. According to Article 51, paragraph 6 of the Federal Law “On military duty and military service”, there must be a “good reason” for dismissal.
“However, what constitutes a good reason isn’t established in any normative act. The only existing definition is a decision of the Supreme Court, which states that good reasons are understood as circumstances that objectively prevent the contract soldier from fully fulfilling the terms of the contract. In practice, it is up to the unit commander to decide whether or not a reason is good. If a soldier appeals [the decision], then it’s up to the court’s interpretation,” said lawyer Anton Shcherbak.
What constitutes a ‘good reason’ (according to human rights defenders)
A soldier declaring that they have beliefs that prevent them from continuing their military service and participating in combat operations should suffice to terminate their contract. However, according to Oksana Paramonova, although this reasoning is sufficient from a general legal standpoint, such statements have not helped secure terminations in practice.
In Anton Shcherbak’s experience, fear for one’s life and safety has been considered a good reason; for example, in one case where a sergeant and an officer beat up a soldier.
Shcherbak also noted that one can terminate a contract for family reasons: for example, if the soldier’s wife does not work and his earnings aren’t enough enough to keep the family above the subsistence minimum.
Another valid reason (contained in a 1999 presidential decree) for terminating a contract is the need to constantly care for a close relative who is sick — however, this requires the relative in question to undergo a medical examination.
“Signing a contract with the Russian army is easy, but terminating one is a big problem. There have been cases where soldiers stopped showing up for service, charges were brought against them, but their contracts weren’t terminated,” Oksana Paramonova said. “In practice, a person can receive ten penalties, but never be discharged. Especially under [the current] circumstances,” added Anton Shcherbak.
Albert Sakhibgareyev underwent a medical examination in the hopes of being declared unfit for service. Sakhibgareyev’s defense lawyer Almaz Nabiyev said that his client has “heart problems” and that his contract will most likely be terminated for medical reasons.
At least four other soldiers in Sakhibgareyev’s unit are trying to quit the military. They too spent time fighting in Ukraine, Nabiyev said.
The Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to Meduza’s request for comment on this article. Meduza was unable to get in contact with the military unit.
Translation by Sasha Zibrov
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