Morally Exhausted: Why Russian soldiers are refusing to fight in the unprovoked war on Ukraine
For 4 1/2 months, Corporal Ilya Kaminsky and his fellow soldiers from the 11th Separate Air Assault Brigade have waged war, as part of the grinding Russian military offensive that has slowly pushed Ukrainian troops back in eastern Ukraine.
By early July, Kaminsky said, he had enough: He refused to fight, one of 78 soldiers from his brigade who have refused orders.
“I’m morally exhausted. There is absolutely no trust in the authorities and the higher command, from the very first word,” Kaminsky, 20, said on July 17, recorded from an undisclosed location in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine.
“Because they ignore everything. They ignore any requests. They began to stir and offer up some alternatives when people started specifically saying no,” he said. “I’m tired. Homesick. My daughter was born three months ago. I still haven’t seen her.”
Nearly five months into the largest war in Europe since World War II, a growing number of Russian soldiers like Kaminsky are refusing to fight, demanding to return home, or outright not going to Ukraine in the first place. Russian rights activists say hundreds, possibly thousands of troops are balking at orders to deploy, to keep fighting, or to remain on the battlefield without rotating out or home.
Of the 78 soldiers from Kaminsky’s unit who have disobeyed orders, some have been ordered held in a makeshift brig for days, he said.
The refusenik troops add to Russian commanders’ headaches as they struggle to replenish spent and exhausted units across the roughly 480-kilometer (300-mile) front line stretching from east of Kharkiv in the northeast down to Kherson in south-central Ukraine.
Western intelligence agencies say Russia’s losses are substantial; a top British military commander told the BBC this week that up to 50,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded since the invasion was launched on February 24.
The Kremlin has declined to call for a general mobilization to replenish lost troops, instead using what analysts have described a “covert, hybrid” campaign to recruit fresh troops: using private military companies, extended age limitations, lucrative financial incentives, and sometimes coercive persuasion to bolster the ranks.
I’m Warning You, This Is A Final Offer
Paratroopers from the 11th Separate Air Assault Brigade, based outside Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Buryatia region in eastern Siberia, arrived in Ukraine’s Kherson region on February 24, shortly after Russia’s invasion began.
At some point, Kaminsky’s unit was then transferred to Luhansk, in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
He said troops were not granted any leave for 4 1/2 months, even as the losses and casualties for the brigade mounted: Up to half of the brigade’s personnel — around 1,000 — have been either killed or wounded in action, he said.
Early in the war, Kaminsky said, commanders ordered the brigade to defend a line opposite Ukrainian forces that stretched up to 64 kilometers in length (40 miles)— about four times what the brigade’s troop strength could reasonably protect.
At another moment, he said, unit commanders ordered a squad of five soldiers to try to seize a nearby settlement defended by up to 200 Ukrainian soldiers.
Kaminsky said discontent had been building in the unit for weeks, if not months. He said he himself had written some 20 complaints and demands for reassignment, but his superior officers had rejected them — or even tore the papers up completely.
In all, 78 soldiers including Kaminsky openly challenged his orders, and demanded to be either sent home or reassigned, he said.
Unit commanders then staged an intervention. According to an audio recording, commanders met with the insubordinate soldiers on July 17, alternately threatening, begging, and trying to coerce them to remain in service or rescind their resignation requests.
“Command post guard duty? Artillery sentry duty? Anybody want it?” the commander, a lieutenant colonel identified only by his surname Agafonov, can be heard telling the soldiers. “Brigade commanders ask who wants to guard the second gunners’ unit. Anyone? Three days of duty?”
“They’re making everything so easy for you, guys. I’m warning you, this is a final offer,” he is heard telling the soldiers. “If no one’s willing to take the offers from the brigade commanders, I won’t detain you. But you have until 6 p.m. today. After that, I won’t look at any new offers.”
According to Kaminsky, the pressure ended up working in part: As of July 16, 50 of the 78 soldiers who had demanded to return to their home base had relented.
For the remainder, however, unit commanders ordered them arrested, and held in a makeshift brig in the Luhansk region, according to Kaminsky, where they were being given food only once a day. As of July 20, the fate of the detained soldiers was unknown.
Russian military regulations provide some legal justification and procedures for soldiers who disobey orders, according to Sergei Krivenko, a rights activist — particularly for those who state they are anti-war, or pacifists.
“If a soldier acts according to such procedures, then he cannot be criminally prosecuted for this. Because there are no criminal articles for requesting the termination of a contract based on anti-war beliefs,” Krivenko said. “The soldier is in the unit, he’s not running away anywhere. And that means he can’t be prosecuted for desertion or going AWOL.”
“He’s not refusing to carry out orders, so the article on insubordination or disobeying orders isn’t relevant either, because he’s not refusing to do so,” he said. “He simply declares that he has anti-war convictions.”
I Had To Refuse So I Could Stay Alive
Russia’s troops in Ukraine are largely made up of contract soldiers: volunteer personnel who sign fixed-term contracts for service. The range of experience varies. Other units include troops from private military companies like Vagner, or specialized, semiautonomous units overseen by Chechnya’s strongman leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.
The discontent in Kaminsky’s 11th Brigade is not an isolated case, and there are indications that Russian commanders are trying different tactics to keep the problem from spiraling out of control: for example, publicly shaming soldiers who are refusing to fight.
In Buryatia, where the 11th Brigade is based, dozens of personnel have sought legal assistance from local activists, seeking to break their contracts and get out of service in Ukraine, for various reasons.
In the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk, on the home base for the 205th Cossack Motorized Rifle Brigade, commanders have erected a “wall of shame” with the names, ranks, and photographs of some 300 soldiers who have disobeyed orders in the Ukraine war.
“They forgot their military oaths, the ceremonial promise, their vows of duty to their Fatherland,” the board reads.
In conversations via the Russian social media giant VK, several soldiers from the brigade disputed the circumstances behind their inclusion on the wall of shame. All asked that their names be withheld for fear of further punishment or retaliation by commanders.
“I understand everything, of course. I signed a contract. I’m supposed to be ready for any situation; this war, this special operation,” one soldier wrote. “But I was thinking, I’m still young; at any moment, a piece of shrapnel, a bullet could fly into my head.”
The soldier said he broke his contract and resigned from the brigade before the February 24 invasion, once he realized it was in fact going forward.
“I thought a long time about it and came to the decision. I understood that I had to refuse so I could stay alive,” he said. “I don’t regret it one bit.”
Another soldier from the 205th Brigade also said commanders gave no preparation to soldiers before the war, and when the units deployed, they were told they were going on exercises.
“We didn’t have normal munitions, no flak jackets or helmets. We had no food, no water,” he said. “Honestly, we had to supply ourselves” with food.
“I didn’t think I would quit, but it happened because of my wife’s difficult pregnancy, when I asked for a delay until after she gave birth,” said a third soldier. “The bosses’ response was: ‘We don’t care about your problems, go ahead and quit’.”
Kaminsky lamented what he described as commanders’ callous disregard for the wellbeing of their troops.
“These people are ready for anything. They don’t care about the life of a soldier; what’s more important is his position and rank,” Kaminsky said.
“’I’d rather bury you on the front line, on the line of defense, than give up my position,’” he said, describing the sentiments of his commanders. “They just don’t care. You’re just a soldier for them; you’re nobody.”
Originally published on RadioFreeEurope as Why Russian Soldiers Are Refusing To Fight In The War On Ukraine. Copyright (c)2020 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036