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‘Expected to serve in any conditions’ How Russia is using new, stricter laws to prosecute soldiers who leave the front

In September 2022, on the day before Vladimir Putin announced mobilization in Russia, the Russian State Duma passed multiple amendments to the country’s Criminal Code at an emergency session. Among other changes, lawmakers introduced harsher penalties for “crimes against military service,” including insubordination, resistance to superiors, unauthorized absence from one’s unit, and desertion. BBC News Russia examined which charges are being applied most often to soldiers who refuse to fight in Ukraine.

According to journalists’ calculations, since February 24, Russian courts have heard approximately 900 criminal cases for offenses related to military service. The charge they’ve used most often to prosecute soldiers is “unauthorized abandonment of one’s unit.” Under Paragraph 5 of the article for this crime in Russia’s Criminal Code, which was added in September, going AWOL for more than one month is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Journalists from BBC News Russia analyzed more than 300 sentences issued by 58 military courts for “unauthorized abandonment” between February 2022 and January 2023. Forty-one of these charges were filed under the article’s new fifth paragraph, and defendants in 16 of those cases have already been convicted.

In a plurality of these cases (121, or 40 percent), soldiers were sentenced to probation (for periods of six months to five years). In 68 cases (22 percent), they were given military service restrictions (usually in the form of salary reductions), while in 67 cases, they were issued fines (between 10,000 rubles, or about $114, and 100,000 rubles, or about $1,446).

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After the Russian State Duma amended the Criminal Code to impose harsher penalties for military offenses in September, prison sentences for soldiers charged with “abandonment” became more common. According to military lawyer Konstantin Markin, that’s because the Russian authorities had less of a need to scare people out of fleeing the front.

BBC News Russia found 28 cases (nine percent of their sample) in which soldiers were sentenced to terms between six months and five years in open prisons, and six cases in which soldiers were sentenced to terms between two years and five years in medium-security prisons.

The soldiers affected

On December 1, a military court in Khabarovsk fined 29-year-old Georgy Klimenko 70,000 rubles (about $1,012) for going AWOL for more than 10 days but less than one month.

According to the sentence, Klimenko refused to fight in the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic” — not because of his moral convictions, but “because of the incompetent decisions and stupid orders of the higher commanders.” Klimenko claimed his superiors didn’t try to stop him from resigning, and that, on the contrary, they ordered him to go back to Khabarovsk. On the way to the unit in Khabarovsk, he stopped in Novosibirsk for several days to visit his mother, a detour that formed the basis of the “abandonment” charges. He pleaded guilty in court.

Klimenko told journalists that he plans to “take a rest in the civilian world” before signing a new contract with the army. He said he has nothing against the war, and that he’s certain he’ll be allowed back in the army: “They always need personnel.”

In another case, a contract soldier named Daniil (last name omitted for security reasons) left his unit in Khabarovsk Krai in August 2019 after his superiors denied his request for leave. He left a resignation letter at his unit.

When he stopped receiving a salary in 2020, he assumed it was because he had been dismissed, and a commander told him as much over the phone, Daniil told journalists. But in October 2022, an investigator informed him that he had never officially been dismissed, and that he had been AWOL since first leaving the unit.

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Daniil decided to plead guilty in court in hopes of getting a light sentence. In late December, he was sentenced to five years in prison. “An investigator told me that without proof [i.e. documentation], there would be no use in trying to prove that it was the commanders who were at fault. I agreed, hoping to get probation or a fine. They’ve basically given me five years [in prison] for 15 days of mobilization. It’s ridiculous,” he told BBC News Russia.

The most severe sentence in BBC News Russia’s analysis was given to contract soldier Alexey Kirgiyenkov, who fled his unit twice. In October, a military court sentenced him to a salary reduction for being absent from the camp where he was stationed for about two weeks. Then, for his second offense, which occurred after mobilization began, Kirgiyenkov was sentenced to five years and one month in prison.

Other offenses authorities can use

Other soldiers have been charged with “desertion,” a more serious offense. Like the Criminal Code’s article on “abandonment,” the article on “desertion” was modified in September to allow for heavier penalties: a newly added paragraph makes it punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Journalists found four soldiers who have been convicted of “desertion” since February 24, 2022. They were all given prison sentences of between 1.5 and three years in prison.

According to BBC News Russia, not a single one of the soldiers convicted of military offenses spoke out against the war itself in court. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean that none of them oppose the war, Konstantin Markin said: “If a defendant starts saying he’s against the ‘special military operation,’ or that his beliefs have changed, that means that when he left his military unit, he didn’t intend to return. And that’s a different [offense] altogether: it’s no longer ‘unauthorized abandonment,’ it’s ‘desertion.’”

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Another charge used to convict soldiers is “feigning illness to evade military service.” Under the newly-amended Criminal Code, this crime is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Conviction under this law doesn't necessarily mean that a soldier lied about being sick or disabled. For example, a corporal from Grozny named Daniil Nosov stands accused of intentionally injuring himself by detonating a grenade he was holding in order to get out of fighting, a stunt that cost him three fingers.

Nosov was on the battlefield when the explosion occurred, and the court has done its best to conceal that fact. Nonetheless, Nosov pleaded partially guilty. He was sentenced to two years in prison.

“Before September, there were cases in which investigators conducted investigations and declined to open criminal cases against soldiers who had left Ukraine for reasons such as frostbite or PTSD in situations where [servicemen] had been abandoned by their commander and many had died,” said a lawyer from the organization Call for Conscience who requested anonymity. But in September, he said, everything changed. “[Now,] a soldier is supposed to continue serving no matter what inhuman conditions he’s facing.”

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