Desertions and refusal to engage in the invasion have put Moscow in a bind over how to punish service members without drawing attention to the problem
Hundreds of Russian soldiers have escaped the fighting in Ukraine or refused to take part during the early stages of the war, according to military decrees viewed by The Wall Street Journal as well as accused soldiers and lawyers defending them.
Russia’s army stumbled badly early in its invasion of Ukraine and suffered thousands of casualties and the loss of an estimated quarter of its deployed military hardware, a senior Pentagon official said in April. Desertions and insubordination among soldiers, Interior Ministry troops and members of the National Guard are compounding the problem.
The desertions place Russian authorities in a bind over how to punish those who refuse to serve without drawing more attention to the issue, defense experts said. The Russian military is short on manpower and seeking recruits to help turn the tide in Ukraine.
Penalties have so far been largely limited to formal dismissals from service. Because Russia hasn’t declared war on Ukraine, there also are few legal grounds for criminal charges against those who refuse to serve abroad, according to a lawyer and former military prosecutor’s assistant who is defending soldiers fired for insubordination.
“So many people don’t want to fight,” said Mikhail Benyash, a Russian lawyer representing a dozen members of the National Guard, a domestic military force that quashes protests in Russia. Mr. Benyash is assisting soldiers appealing their dismissals after they refused orders to enter Ukraine in February, according to National Guard documents. Members of the guard were sent into Ukraine to patrol streets and suppress dissent in occupied areas.
Russian soldier Albert Sakhibgareev, 24 years old, was ordered to Russia’s Belgorod Region on Feb. 8 for military exercises, he said. After President Vladimir Putin gave his Feb. 21 speech dismissing Ukraine’s right to statehood, Mr. Sakhibgareev said most of the troops at his base had their phones confiscated and were told to wear bulletproof jackets. They unloaded projectiles and ammunition from Soviet-era trucks but didn’t know what was to come.
He was startled awake by close artillery fire around dawn on Feb. 24. Two shells landed a mile and a half from his barracks on Russia’s side of the border with Ukraine. Military helicopters and other aircraft flew overhead, appearing to head into battle. Mr. Sakhibgareev said he learned what was happening only after furtively scrolling a news headline on Telegram: “Russia Invades Ukraine.” He got scared, fled the army base and went into hiding.
“None of us wanted this war,” Mr. Sakhibgareev said. His mother, Galina Sakhibgareeva, said her son enlisted out of patriotism and because there were few other career opportunities in their small town in Russia’s Ufa region, located about 700 miles east of Moscow.
A military career was a chance to make a life for himself. “I brought up a tall, athletic son and gave him away for the defense of the country,” she said.
By the book
Mr. Benyash, the lawyer, said that within several days of publishing a March 24 post about his National Guard cases, more than 1,000 service members and employees of the Interior Ministry, which oversees policing in Russia, reached out for legal assistance. Many had defied orders to enter Ukraine for combat or to suppress protests in towns occupied by Russian forces, he said.
On March 17, Russian human-rights group Agora launched a Telegram channel where service members and their relatives could seek legal help for refusing orders. Pavel Chikov, the group’s director, said 721 members of the army and security forces responded over the following 10 days.
A March 4 military decree signed by a Russian base commander ordered the dismissals of several hundred army servicemen who refused orders while on duty near the Ukraine border, according to a copy of the document viewed by the Journal. It is unclear if the ex-soldiers faced further penalties.
Another document viewed by the Journal, signed by a judge at a military court in the city of Nalchik and dated May 25, rejected an appeal by 115 members of Russia’s National Guard who were dismissed from service for refusing to enter Ukraine in late February and early March.
Russian law calls for penalties of up to 10 years in prison for service members who abandon sworn duties. Deserters can be spared criminal charges if they can prove they acted under immense pressure or had personal issues that prompted them to flee. Service members also have a right to refuse orders they believe are illegal.
Punishment for refusing orders in what Mr. Putin calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine has so far been limited to firing soldiers without paying back wages or by stripping them of special mortgage plans and other service benefits, said Pavel Luzin, a Moscow-based defense expert.
“If it hypes these cases, the government will inadvertently amplify the scale of desertion, which is small in percentage terms but will continue to grow,” he said.
A message stamped on one discharged Russian soldier’s military identification said: “Prone to treason, deception and dishonesty. Refused to participate in the special military operation,” according to a photograph of it published last month by the soldiers’ lawyer, Maksim Grebenyuk.
‘Bring your lawyers’
Transcripts from two audio files purportedly recorded by soldiers and published April 22 by Russian independent outlet Mediazona documented instances of soldiers who refused orders.
“You can’t not go,” a base commander said in a recording heard by the Journal. “If you don’t go there, you’ll spend 15 years stamping across a [prison] courtyard.”
The soldier said he had talked to lawyers who said he didn’t risk prison for refusing to fight in Ukraine.
“Bring your lawyers here,” the commander replied. “We’ll have a chat with them.”
Western intelligence agencies say there is broad evidence of chaos and disorder among Russian forces in Ukraine.
A senior U.S. defense official told reporters last month that Russian “mid-grade officers at various levels, even up to the battalion level…have either refused to obey orders or [are] not obeying them with the same measure of alacrity that you would expect an officer to obey.”
In the First Chechen war, from 1994 to 1996, thousands of Russian soldiers deserted after being sent to fight in the mountains of the Caucasus, often with little more than a month of training, military experts said.
Afterward, Moscow imposed stiffer penalties for desertion, including the maximum 10-year prison sentence. Mr. Putin made revamping the military a priority after the country’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 exposed shortcomings in equipment and training.
Low pay, corruption and hazing of new service members continue to undermine morale, according to an April report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an international network of investigative journalists.
Lawyers defending Russian deserters, as well as journalists reporting about the cases, are endangered. On April 13, Mr. Benyash was charged with “discrediting Russia’s armed forces” for statements he made in a YouTube video published in the first days of the war, according to documents viewed by the Journal. The case has since been dropped.
On the same day Mr. Benyash was charged, Mikhail Afanasyev, a journalist who had earlier published an article about 11 National Guardsmen in the Khakassia region of Siberia who refused orders to enter Ukraine, was arrested. He was charged with spreading “fake news” about the Russian military.
“My whole life I’ve fought for my right to be a journalist and tell the truth,” he said before his arrest. He faces 10 years in prison.
Military prosecutors eventually reached Mr. Sakhibgareev and his mother by phone and persuaded him to return to service. They allowed him a transfer to another base, one far from the front lines.
Mr. Sakhibgareev faced more serious criminal charges the longer he stayed away, his lawyer Almaz Nabiev said. Authorities are awaiting the results of Mr. Sakhibgareev’s medical examination. They could pronounce him unfit for service or decide to press charges for desertion.
Mr. Benyash said many soldiers who refuse orders to go to Ukraine figure it is easier to risk a criminal case than risk their lives to fight.