“They called me one morning from the office of the division commander in Amur Oblast, where Pavlik served,” said a woman from Russia’s Tambov region who asked to be identified only by her first name, Yelena. “The man said: ‘Do you know that they are searching for your son, that he is AWOL?’ Pavlik was supposed to board a troop train, but he didn’t. And five other soldiers were with him.”
Yelena’s son, Pavel, was serving in the Far Eastern Amur region when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Almost immediately, his unit was sent to the front, and he served almost 40 days in combat. Then his unit was sent back to Russia to regroup, Yelena told RFE/RL’s North.Realities. When his unit was preparing to return to Ukraine, Pavel refused.
“If he doesn’t want to go back, am I supposed to push him, to tell him, ‘Grab your weapon and go,’” Yelena said. “Those who haven’t been there have no right judge those who have.”
Yelena’s son is one of a significant but unknown number of Russian contract soldiers who have refused to either fight in Ukraine in the first place or who have fought and do not want to return.
Lawyer Pavel Chikov, founder of the Agora legal-aid NGO, has written on Telegram that more than 1,000 military personnel and National Guard troops from at least seven regions have refused to go to Ukraine.
Ruslan Leviyev, the founder of the Conflict Intelligence Team, a Russian NGO that monitors open-source information about the Russian military, told Current Time that the actual number of these cases might be considerably larger and that the refusals could be severely hampering Russia’s efforts to regroup and renew its military operations in eastern Ukraine.
“The phenomenon of refusal is becoming systemic,” Leviyev said. “Such soldiers are found in practically every unit that has returned from Ukraine. According to our estimates, from 20 to 40 percent of the contract servicemen that returned from Ukraine and that are being readied to be sent back are refusing to return to combat.”
Leviyev said most of these soldiers are not deserters but could face legal ramifications for refusing to obey orders. To convict, however, prosecutors must demonstrate that the order was lawful and that the refusal to obey caused “substantial harm” to the military
“From the cases we have seen, they are being intimidated with threats of prosecution and being worked over by military prosecutors,” he said. “But so far no one has been prosecuted, according to what we have seen.”
Rights lawyers say the government’s unwillingness to call the invasion of Ukraine a “war” or to declare war or martial law could give dissenting servicemen some protection from the worst consequences of refusing to fight.
“Citizens have the right to refuse to go to a foreign war and kill people,” said Agora lawyer Mikhail Benyash, who is providing legal services to some soldiers who have refused. “And they also have the right not to participate in a ‘special military operation.’ By definition, only special forces troops with training for such operations are sent [on ‘special military operations’]….”
An unknown number of soldiers, however, have been discharged from military service for refusing to fight in Ukraine, wrote rights lawyer Maksim Grebenyuk on Telegram. He said the question of “what are the consequences of refusing to serve in the ‘special military operation,’” as Moscow insists that its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine be euphemistically called, has become “the most frequent query” he has received in the last few weeks.
Grebenyuk also posted a photograph of a stamp that was purportedly placed in the military-service booklet of one soldier who refused to serve in Ukraine, whose name Grebenyuk withheld, but who reportedly served in the 136th Guards Motor Rifle Brigade.
“Inclined toward treason, lies, and deception,” the official-looking stamp reads.
“Refused to participate in the special military operation on the territory of the LNR, DNR, and Ukraine,” it continued, using the abbreviations adopted by the Moscow-backed separatists in parts of eastern Ukraine to designate the territory they claim and which Moscow has recognized as sovereign countries.
Grebenyuk said the soldier told him he had served seven months in Syria and had been granted “rest and rehabilitation leave,” which was rescinded when he was ordered to go to Ukraine.
In a post on Twitter, Leonid Volkov, a top aide to imprisoned opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, wrote: “They had a stamp made? That means it is a mass phenomenon. Good.”
Such a stamp in one’s military-service booklet could make it difficult for a serviceman to find a job or enroll in higher education.
The Russian military insists its war in Ukraine is largely proceeding according to plan, but Western intelligence analysts have documented significant lapses in supply, communications, preparation, and other areas that have hampered its operations. Moscow has said 1,351 servicemen have been killed since the war was launched on February 24, but other sources say the real figure is much higher. The Ukrainian military estimates that more than 18,000 Russian troops have been killed.
Agora lawyer Benyash said he believes the number of such refusals to fight will increase as the human costs of the war become clearer in Russia.
“I think that as more zinc coffins come back from Ukraine, the more people there will be in Russia who have no desire to be next,” he said.
“Such a position will become socially acceptable, understood, and accepted,” he added. “The mood in society is changing. Earlier, a soldier had to make such a decision alone, at their own risk. But now there are already examples and people can see the consequences. They aren’t being shot; they don’t face tribunals; they aren’t being sent to prison.”