Russian servicemen fighting in Ukraine and their relatives massively complain about the soldiers not being allowed to terminate contracts: the command will not let them return home. In response to letters of resignation, the command threatens soldiers with criminal cases or being sent to pre-trial detention centres or the frontlines. Novaya Gazeta. Europe found a soldier that had managed to break the contract and return home. He told us why servicemen are massively resigning and what happens to someone who tries to stop their involvement in the war.
‘We don’t want to work this way, we are resigning’
Arthur Gabriyelyanov (name changed — editor’s note), 20, is an anime fan, his dream is to move to Japan. However, after graduating from technical college, he signed a two-year contract with the army instead of doing one year of compulsory service. Since November 2020, he has been serving in a Stavropol military unit#87530 — a separate battalion of electronic intelligence. According to Arthur, the unit employees’ main task is “wiretapping”. At the end of January, 20 people from their unit were sent to Crimea; they were told it was for military training.
“On 23 February, we were two miles away from the border with Ukraine; on 24 February, around three in the morning, a fellow soldier woke me up. I ask him what happened, and he says: ‘Shit, the war has started,’ Arthur recalls. I step outside and see Russian [multiple rocket launchers] Grads start relentlessly firing at Ukraine. On 25 February, we entered [Ukraine’s territory], and complete chaos erupted, and by this, I mean that the Russian army was completely disorganised. The first place we positioned ourselves in was the village Chaplynka in the Kherson region. We entered the country through Crimea, through the border near the town Armyansk. The border was destroyed: both from the Russian side and the Ukrainian side. There were tank tracks everywhere, and pavement was completely destroyed. At first, we stayed at the border and waited to be let in. Mile-long conveys of military vehicles speeded past us, I’ve never seen such machines even on TV, I’ve never even heard about things like these. There were so many of them. And it turned out that, because there was no communication and control happening, all of this equipment was completely useless. Accordingly, due to the fact that almost no one is actually training soldiers for anything, if we don’t take initiative into our own hands, we are left with nothing,” he adds, talking about his first days in Ukraine.
Arthur continues: he is sorry for taking part in combat; he now thinks that he will never be able to move to Japan, because “no country needs a war criminal”.
However, he proudly tells us that at the beginning of the war the coordinates he had calculated were used to destroy six multiple rocket launchers of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, which is why his brigade was later named the best unit of the Southern Military District.
“Ours are special purpose troops, i.e. we are not supposed to be running around and shooting. We work with our heads, collect and summarise information to pass it to the command. While special forces — they are the ones that carry out diversions, explosions, reconnaissance, fighting. I guess someone mixed us up; recently, I heard that another unit ended up in the same situation. Ultimately, at the end of March, we were in the middle of the Mykolaiv region, and we almost reached the city of Nova Odesa. It was only us, the 66th Communications Brigade, which is responsible for communication, and the 689th Command Reconnaissance Centre. We didn’t even have armoured or tracked vehicles, we only had vehicles that were easily shot through even with a Kalashnikov assault rifle,” Arthur laments.
According to him, during the first months of the war, resignations and termination of contracts were a normal practice: “In our battalion, there were around 80 people if you count the conscripts. About 30 of them quit during the war, but that was before they had started punishing people for resigning. Basically, they quit right there, in Ukraine, when the battalion commander had told them: ‘We are gonna leave you here, to guard the positions.’ They replied: ‘No, we don’t want to work this way, we are resigning.’ Back then, that was a normal practice. I mean, they quit and faced no problems. I think that was in the middle of March.”
In January, when Arthur’s battalion was sent to the border, the command told them that the Federal Security Service (FSB) agents would be present at the military training, so it would be for the best to leave their documents and phones at the point of permanent deployment. Later, it turned out that Arthur had been the only one to follow the order, all his fellow soldiers had taken various means of communication with them, that is why, according to Arthur, at first, he was in total information isolation.
Photo: EPA/SERGEI ILNITSKY
“Later, my best friend and my girlfriend, who supported me, managed to explain to me that everything going on was wrong. I didn’t understand myself at first because I was in information isolation, the propaganda was working overtime. We were all convinced that there were fascists in Ukraine and they needed to be eliminated. But it turns out that’s not true. We crossed one and a half regions, and I didn’t see even one swastika anywhere. And no locals tried to attack us with pitchforks, although we didn’t meet a lot of locals. I’m honestly very sorry to have taken part in this. I don’t even know… There’s no turning back time. I try to console myself with the fact that I hadn’t known back then what I was involved in,” Arthur reflects.
He managed to return home in April, there were several factors that made him quit: the lack of organisation in the army, bad treatment of soldiers, and, as a result, health problems.
And in general — stupid and ridiculous situations.
“We were positioned near a forest, and a person walked out of the woods. I guess because of loud generators, when the mobile group commander asked that person that had walked out of the woods the password, the person didn’t reply because they hadn’t heard the question. The commander asked again, in a louder voice, but before the person managed to reply, he had been shot repeatedly. One of the bullets hit him right in the chest, raptured his lung, grazed his heart, and went right out. The person that had walked out of the woods was our captain. Fortunately, they managed to stop the bleeding quickly, because we had a qualified person in our group. We were near the border, so the medics arrived quickly, evacuated our captain, and thus, his participation in the special operation was over.
Another time, we were in trenches near some populated area, also somewhere in the woods; we were being bombed with something heavy and big. Ukrainians usually use either mortars or [multiple rocket launchers] Grad to bomb us. They bomb us a little, change positions, bomb a little more, then leave. I mean, it ends quickly. But that time, it went on for 20-40 minutes, and they weren’t hitting us but somewhere close by, very very close. Eventually, when the bombing had ended and we had begun to evacuate from the woods, our own gunners told us over the radio: ‘Sorry guys, we mixed up the square.’ As in, they wanted to hit Ukraine’s Armed Forces but instead bombed us! Another thing, as part of my duties, I intercepted a lot of radio messages. We listened to our guys’ messages too, to monitor the situation and have at least some method of communication. I listened in on a conversation between two soldiers — one of them, I think, was a contract soldier, the other was an officer. The contract soldier reported that he was striking in the azimuth 190º (the south-western direction — editor’s note), and the officer replied: ‘You idiot! 190º are ours, you should be using azimuth 300º.’ Once, a horrible event occurred near us: two of our own tank companies that were facing each other in the woods shot at each other for three days in a row. Another time — a fellow soldier and I were on night patrol, and at some point, we saw our drone rise into air. And then, our own guys start striking against our drone from three sides with tracer ammunition. Then, a heart-rending scream erupts from the other side of the camp from where the drone had risen: ‘Don’t!’ That’s our drone, the person responsible for it was screaming,” Gabriyelyanov recalls.
Arthur went on leave in April, he was able to do so because of his health problems. He ended up with erosion of the gastric mucosa because of the army food, rather because of the lack of food; he also now has “hernia and compression fracture from constantly running while wearing a bulletproof vest”.
“I came up to my commander, told him that I had health issues, I needed to be evacuated, to leave. He told me to go to a medic. The medic said that I had to immediately leave for Armyansk. Three days later, we were sent on leave to Russia — my unit and a few other guys.”
Currently, Arthur is in treatment; he hopes that he will not be made to go back to war before the end of his contract in November.
However, his fellow soldiers, who had not managed to leave during the first months of the war but are trying to return home now, were less lucky.
“Three guys from our battalion, my friends Sasha, Armen, and Azat, ended up in the motorised infantry brigade. Their contracts will soon expire, but they are unable to leave. I'm very worried about them. We are able to contact them, they have Ukrainian SIM-cards, they periodically check their Telegram, but we can’t get them out [of Ukraine], the command wants to keep them there till the end of their contracts. Despite the fact that they have collected so many days off in exchange for fighting days, which they should be allowed to use. Sasha, for example, has so many that they could cover the time until the end of his contract, which is in October. He’s been there continuously since February, for more than half a year. His wife has been trying to get him out of there, she is writing to different authorities, but nothing is helping,” Arthur says. The names of his fellow soldiers have been changed upon request, Novaya Gazeta. Europe is in possession of them. Armen and Sasha’s wife refused to talk to Novaya Gazeta. Europe.
Military commissariat of the Zheleznodorozhny and Soviet district of the city Ulan-Ude. Photo: Yandex.Maps
To the pre-trial detention centre or to the frontlines
Since the beginning of July, the media have been writing about the creation of so-called temporary holding camps on the Russia-occupied Ukraine’s territories, for example, in the cities of Popasna and Bryanka of the Luhansk region. Contract servicemen that no longer want to fight are sent to these camps.
In July, Russian outlet Mediazona published a transcript of an audio, in which seven contract soldiers from the 11th Guards Air Assault Brigade had complained about the threats from the commanders because of their submitted resignation letters. The outlet received the audio from the president of the Free Buryatia foundation, Alexander Garmazhapov. At the beginning of the audio, the soldiers introduced themselves: Ilya Kaminsky, Aldar Dilikov, Vladimir Malkov, Andrey Martinov, Sergey Arsenov, Viktor Durnikh, and Nikolay Vasilyev. All of them served in the military unit#32364 in Buryatia; after a few months of the war, they submitted reports on their refusal to participate in combat.
Ilya Kaminsky’s report. Photo: currenttime.tv
“This is Ilya Kaminsky, unit#32364. We wrote reports [of resignation], the command reacted negatively to them, our reports were neither accepted nor signed. <…> The commander of the Investigative Military Committee in the Kherson region, I think, threatened us… He arrived, we don’t know either his title or post, we know that he’s a colonel, he didn’t tell us his last name. They told us that no one would end up at the point of permanent deployment, took away all of our documents, that was at the beginning of the special operation. They are threatening us and saying they will take us to the frontlines, trying to take us to a pre-trial detention centre. I don’t know, they are saying that some unit had been formed over there — it was being formed for two weeks, from there soldiers are sent to the frontlines,” one of the men on the recording says.
Ilya Kaminsky, 22, a soldier of the 11th Separate Guards Air Assault Brigade, has been on Ukrainian territory since the very start of the war. The young man got married shortly before the war. In April, his wife gave birth to their daughter. In mid-June, the Free Buryatia anti-war foundation published video messages by Ilya’s mother and wife, who said that Kaminsky had submitted dozens of reports, at first asking for time off due to the birth of his child, and then asking to break off his contract. His higher-ups did not respond to any of his requests.
Ilya’s mother, Oksana Plyusnina, stated that her son had not been able to take time off even once since the war started.
“On 11 July, my son, Kaminsky Ilya Antonovich, decided to write a statement on his refusal to participate in combat due to the fact that the command had refused to sign his report [asking for time off]. This report was ignored by his higher-ups as well, that is, there was no response at all.” Plyusnina claims that the soldiers handed in their passports and military IDs: the command told them that if they end up captured, it will be safer for them without their documents. However, she thinks it was just an excuse. Ilya’s wife, Diana Kaminskaya, says that her husband called her on 14 July and said that
the soldiers who asked to break off their contracts are being sent to detention centres.
“Currently, all their brigade, all the fighters who wrote statements refusing to participate in combat activity, have been separated into groups of 8 to 10 people. They are being sent to a detention facility in Luhansk. I don’t know where my son is, where they are taking him. They are taking away their phones, we cannot communicate, we can’t track where he is right now, what is happening to him. They said that all those who refused were going to be sent to the frontlines. Right now, they are being coerced into rescinding their reports and writing new statements agreeing to take part in combat,” Oksana says.
Viktoria Maladaeva, vice president of the Free Buryatia foundation, tells Novaya Gazeta. Europe that Kaminsky’s mother came to her after her son had written several dozen reports. All the official bodies she contacted did not respond to her complaints. “The official bodies do not react to such complaints and requests to find missing persons or to return POWs. They keep telling them to come back later, so they contacted our foundation for help. Ilya contacted our human rights lawyer Andrey Rinchino. We sent the audio of our conversations to Mediazona reporters, they published his address and spoke to him. I think after that, his higher-ups found his phone and took it away. We no longer have any contact with him, we don’t know where he is.”
Viktoria Maladaeva, vice president of the Free Buryatia foundation. Photo: Instagram
According to Maladaeva, after the wave of written statements, the higher-ups refused to hand out paper to the soldiers, so that they would not be able to end their contracts. This is why Ilya asked his fellow servicemen who also tried to go home to state their names in the audio recording.
Novaya Gazeta. Europe managed to contact several soldiers who serve alongside Kaminsky, as well as their relatives. They said that
the deputy commander of the Russian Airborne Forces for military and political affairs Major General Viktor Kupchishin threatened to send them to the frontlines.
Major General Viktor Kupchishin, deputy commander of the Russian Airborne Forces for military and political affairs. Photo: pda.mil.ru
One of Kaminsky’s fellow officers has told Novaya Gazeta. Europe that after the media had reported on the situation, several servicemen, including him, were able to return home. However, it is not clear what happened to those that were taken to the detention centre. For several weeks, no one has been able to contact Ilya Kaminsky. On 4 August, he accessed his VK page (the last time he was online before that was on 17 July). On the same day, he published a new post. Viktoria Maladaeva confirmed to Novaya Gazeta. Europe that Kaminsky had left Ukraine. However, she was unable to give us more details for security reasons. At the moment of the article’s publication, Ilya has not responded to a message by a Novaya Gazeta. Europe correspondent.
‘No supply of cannon fodder’
In late July, Verstka media outlet published data suggesting that about 2,000 Russian soldiers had refused to take part in the war since February. Some of them managed to come back, but others were not so lucky. Some of those who refused are being taken to special facilities on occupied territories, where they are being “re-educated” to continue fighting in the war.
“At 17:00 on 19 July 2022, I and my fellow servicemen who refused to take part in the special operation were taken to an isolated room in the military commander’s office in the settlement of Borove, Luhansk region. <…> There were about 25 of us in an isolated unequipped room. There were no basic amenities. We used an iron bucket and plastic bottles as a bathroom, there was no food, they took away our documents and personal items. There were no protocols regarding our detention, no orders on our arrest, no documents on any measures in response to a blatant disciplinary violation, no disciplinary arrest orders, despite our many requests to show them to us. At about 11:00 on 20 July 2022, I and the aforementioned servicemen were taken to the settlement of Bryanka in the Luhansk region, to a former school which now housed Military Unit 23561 of the LPR [the Luhansk “people’s republic”] people’s militia. The territory of the school was cordoned off, there were armed people guarding the entry, who said they were from the Wagner Group. They told us that the perimeter of the school was rigged with explosives, and those who dared to cross it would be considered an enemy. They told us they would shoot to kill with no prior warning,” a statement by one of the soldiers who contacted attorney Maksim Grebeniuk reads.
On 28 July, five members of Russia’s Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, Aleksandr Asmolov, Nikolai Svanidze, Aleksandr Verkhovsky, Aleksandr Sokurov and Natalia Yevdokimova, sent a letter to the military prosecutor’s office with the demand to check the reports of maltreatment of Russian soldiers who wanted to terminate their contracts and refuse to take part in the war in Ukraine. The address written based on the statements by the soldiers’ relatives mentions several Ukrainian cities occupied by Russia: Popasna, Alchevsk, Stakhanov (also known as Kadiivka), Krasny Luch (also known as Khrustalnyi), and Bryanka, where those who refused are being held. According to Verstka, there are 234 people detained in Bryanka alone. An uncle of one of the soldiers says that his 20-year-old nephew is being held in a basement and forced to do “dirty work”. According to him,
at first, he was in contact with his nephew, however, for the past two weeks, nothing has been known about the young man’s fate.
A sister of a Russian soldier from Tuva has told Novaya Gazeta. Europe that her brother requested time off in early July after their father had had a heart attack. “My brother feared that he would never be able to see his father again. They didn’t give him time off, so he wrote a report asking to terminate his contract. We were so glad, we waited for him to come back soon, because I saw many reports online of soldiers who refused to go to war coming back home safe. But on 20 July, he told us that they don’t want to sign his report and that they threaten to send him to some camp near Luhansk. Since then, we’ve had no contact with him at all. We contacted the Investigative Committee, my mum is on her way to Luhansk now, I don’t know how she’ll get there and whether it will just make things worse.”
Sergey Krivenko, human rights lawyer, head of the Citizen. Army. Law public movement. Photo: svoboda.org
Head of the Citizen. Army. Law public movement and human rights lawyer Sergey Krivenko says that there is a special facility called the Centre of the Soldiers’ Psychological Support, which is where those who want to break off their contracts are being sent. The soldiers and their families say that people are being held in terrible conditions there. They are under a lot psychological pressure, some even report cases of physical abuse. Krivenko points out that some soldiers are being sent to their home military units or are granted time off, although many still remain in the “psychological support” centre where they are being coerced to continue fighting in the war.
All these special camps are prohibited by Russian law. The military command does not comment on their existence, which means that the camps and those that were sent there are in a “grey area”:
according to their relatives and themselves, they exist, but there is no official confirmation. Attorneys and human rights lawyers are not allowed to visit these facilities.
According to Krivenko, “in a perfect world”, a military contract is akin to a work contract signed by a civilian and their employer, although “if you’re a civilian, you just put in your two weeks’ notice and then quit, while there is a more difficult procedure to break off a military contract, but still, it exists.” Russia’s federal law on military service has a separate article that lists off the grounds for early termination of a military contract. A soldier needs to have “a reasonable excuse” to break off a contract: “significant and systematic violations of the terms of the contract in relation to the serviceman”, health reasons and family matters.
“If a serviceman says that he now has anti-war views and can no longer perform military service, it can be considered a valid reason to break off a contract. So, the course of action should be this: a serviceman hands in a report to his command saying that he now has anti-war views and this is why he wants to terminate his contract. In a perfect world, the command must break off the contract. There can be no criminal prosecution of the serviceman, because there are no articles related to this in the Criminal Code. It’s not unauthorised absence from the military unit, it’s not desertion. You can’t use the article for disobeying an order against those servicemen, because they are not disobeying any orders, they simply refuse military service as a whole. As of this moment, there have been no criminal cases of this kind since March, because this legal procedure is impossible to implement,” Sergey Krivenko explains.
Photo: Sergey Nikolaev/Getty Images
Still, not everyone encountered problems when breaking off their contract. In the first months of the war, servicemen who asked to terminate their contracts could return to Russia. Viktoria Maladaeva from Free Buryatia explains the establishment of special camps for those who want to terminate their contract by the fact that the Russian army cannot replenish its manpower due to high casualties and the lack of mass mobilisation.
“The army has no supply of cannon fodder. This is why they don’t want to let go their old cannon fodder. In the spring, there was hidden mobilisation in Russia, they scoured small villages, recruited volunteers, signed contracts. But the thing is that people start to understand that these contracts must not be signed. The only way out of there is in a zinc-lined coffin. We mentioned two soldiers from Kyahkta, a small border town in Buryatia, as an example. In April, two soldiers left the town and went to war. In May, they both were killed. It was then reported that several May volunteers had been killed in early July. One of them didn’t even make it a week after being sent to Ukraine, he was killed instantly. And
people started to realise that this is a one-way ticket,”
According to Sergey Krivenko from the Citizen. Army. Law foundation, special internment camps for soldiers who want to leave were set up by order of the higher command. “In early July, they started sending soldiers to these detention centres. There are soldiers from different military units there, from Buryatia, Tuva… That is, it’s not an initiative of just one specific commander. They are trying to limit the number of soldiers going home. At the same time, they are trying to find contract soldiers in Russia by any means: through conscription offices, through the regions and regional officials.”
On 5 August, attorney Maksim Grebeniuk with the Military Ombudsman human rights project said that two of his clients who escaped from a detention centre near Luhansk told him that one of the internment centres for Russian soldiers who want to leave Ukraine had been closed. However, it is unclear whether other facilities of this kind are still functioning on Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia. There has still been no official comment on the situation.
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