‘They told us nobody’s going to take us home’ Russian soldiers held captive in Luhansk region for refusing to fight in Ukraine
Russian soldiers who refused to continue fighting against Ukraine are reportedly being held captive in the Luhansk region. According to media reports citing soldiers, their family members, and human rights workers, the servicemen were detained by their superiors after attempting to resign from the army.
The estimated number of prisoners ranges from several dozen to several hundred. At least some of the objectors reported being held in the city of Brianka. According to Mediazona, the administration of the self-proclaimed Luhansk “People’s Republic” has been running multiple illegal prisons there since 2014.
The independent Russian media project Verstka reported that at least 234 Russian servicemen are being held in a “special center” for objectors in Brianka. On July 21, Alexey Tabalov, head of the NGO Conscript School, said in an interview with Current Time that there may be more than 80 people there. According to reports from the detained soldiers and their family members, the soldiers are being held in small groups in basements.
According to the mothers of Artyom Gorshenin and Nikita Lazarev, two soldiers from an engineering brigade based in Abkhazia, after commanders refused to accept resignation letters from a group of soldiers who had been fighting in the war for three and a half months, the soldiers abandoned their posts in the Kherson region and found their way to a commandant’s office in Crimea. There, they were told they would be sent through Russia’s Rostov region to Abkhazia, where they would be allowed to break their contracts. Instead, however, they were taken to Brianka.
The men were initially put in a school building that contained over 160 people, Artyom Gorshenin told his mother. After that, they were divided into groups of 20 and locked in basements guarded by “musicians,” which presumably refers to mercenaries from the Wagner private military company.
“We sleep on stretchers. There’s no light — we sit in the darkness. They told us that nobody’s going to take us home. First it’ll be a remand prison, then a stockade, and then a trial. And the trial will be here, in Luhansk,” Artyom wrote.
He also said that the soldiers are being held “without food,” that their personal items have been confiscated, and that their phones were “broken in front of them.” According to Current Time, Artyom managed to hide his phone, but his mother believes somebody else has begun messaging her from the number.
The father of another soldier told Verstka that his son, who's been fighting in Ukraine since late March, wrote a resignation letter in early July and was sent to a basement in Brianka soon after. The soldier told his dad that servicemen who try to resign “are given a choice: once they’re in the basement, they can either return to their unit and continue their service, or they can transfer to a different unit, but they still have to stay on the front,” Verstka reported.
Soldiers’ relatives also reported that people are periodically taken from the basement and sent to a detention center, though it’s unclear what happens to them after that.
Another group of soldiers was reportedly taken into custody in the Luhansk region after deciding to break their contracts. According to Corporal Ilya Kaminsky, the soldiers, who were serving in the the 11th Air Assault Brigade from Buryatia, submitted approximately 20 resignation letters, none of which were considered.
Kaminsky and his fellow service members told human rights workers that their commanders threatened them in response to the resignation letters. According to one soldier, the men were taken in groups to the commandant’s office, where they were held for days before being sent to a detention center near Luhansk. “[Our commanders] said they had created an assault detachment near Luhansk, and that after [the detention center], we’d all be sent there,” one soldier reportedly said.
By law, contract soldiers have the right to terminate their service early. According to a human rights worker who spoke to Verstka, “the most common reasons cited by military service members for ending a contract early are philosophical opposition to the war, being the only breadwinner in one’s family, and significant or systematic violation of the contract terms by the command.”
One soldier told Current Time that he decided to resign because he “wanted to live.”
“They didn’t tell us it was going to be like this. They told us we were going to do some training exercises. We didn’t have sufficient equipment. There were no helmets or armor. There was no food or water,” he said.
The total number of Russian soldiers who have refused to participate in the war in Ukraine is unknown, but Verstka estimates that there are at least 1,793. Current Time, citing human rights workers, reported that the number could be in the “thousands, or even the tens of thousands.”