Off the hook

How Russian soldiers get away with murder for their service in Ukraine

Off the hook

A war memorial near the former Wagner Group headquarters in St. Petersburg, August 2023. Photo: Anatoly Maltsev

While legislation exempting Russian military personnel from prosecution for most crimes was signed into law last month, soldiers charged with criminal offences have already been receiving far more lenient punishments ever since the start of the war in Ukraine.

The new law, which was signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in March, grants combatants immunity for crimes such as murder, theft, and rape, and has come into effect despite an increase in the number of crimes being committed by demobbed Russian soldiers.

At least 51 civilians in Russia had been killed at the hands of veterans and active duty soldiers on leave by late 2023,

independent media outlet Sirena estimated in December. Stories of Russian soldiers and former Wagner Group mercenaries committing crimes after returning from war have repeatedly made headlines in the Russian media.

In one of the most recent cases, a 35-year-old Ukraine war veteran killed a teacher with an axe in the city of Yakutsk in the Russian Far East in late February. A month later, another soldier raped a nine-year-old schoolgirl from Kurgan in the Urals.

The number of crimes committed by soldiers is increasing, Novaya Europe has learned after analysing Russian court data, which suggests that the number of military officers convicted on criminal charges has increased a staggering sevenfold since 2022.

Lenient Russian courts

In October 2022, a Wagner Group mercenary was fined just 5,000 rubles (€50) for brutally beating his ex-wife and breaking both her eye sockets. The court released him from criminal liability after he presented the court with the medals awarded for his service in Ukraine.

Russian judges rarely show such leniency to civilians. In 2022, only 1.5% of those accused of the same crime were fined, according to the Judicial Department at the Supreme Court. The vast majority were handed much harsher custodial sentences.

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, at least 2,600 Russian military personnel have been convicted of criminal offences.

Of those, at least 192 veterans and currently serving military personnel have been accused of violent crimes, Novaya Europe estimates.

In more than half of all cases, judges recognised the defendants’ service in Ukraine as a mitigating factor when sentencing them. This percentage increased in cases where the defendant was accused of a non-military crime.

Typical mitigating circumstances include pregnancy of a partner, proof the defendant provided medical assistance to the victim, or a defendant turning themselves in to the authorities. Mitigating circumstances often affect the severity of the sentence imposed and may even lower it beyond the parameters suggested in the Criminal Code.

Only a quarter of military servicemen who were criminally charged received as harsh a sentence as the majority of civilians convicted for the same crime, Russian independent news outlet IStories reported in November 2022.

Participating in Russia’s war with Ukraine is not listed specifically as a mitigating circumstance in the Russian Criminal Code, but during the past two years, it has become common practice in Russian courts to commute sentences for those who have served in Ukraine.

For example, more than 80% of military officers charged with drunk driving were fined, a staggeringly high rate compared to civilians who are usually sentenced to community service for the same offence.

This unwritten rule of commuting sentences for defendants who served in Ukraine applies to almost all crimes, from petty bribery to illegal arms possession.

There is only one crime for which military personnel are judged more severely than civilians: the trafficking of explosives. This could be related to the fact that the military has access to lethal weapons, many of which come from the war in Ukraine.

The impulse to commute military servicemen’s sentences goes so far that judges may even assign blame to the victim, which is just what happened in the town of Dalnerechensk in Russia’s Far East, where a pensioner was beaten to death after speaking out against the war in Ukraine to a veteran.

The judge considered the veteran’s military service and medals as mitigating circumstances, and also noted that the victim’s actions had been illegal under the recently adopted law that makes “discrediting the Russian military” a criminal offence. The court found that the murdered pensioner had caused the incident by “hurting the defendant’s feelings” with his anti-war statements.

Although judges are not legally obliged to impose more lenient sentences on defendants with a history of service in Ukraine or medals on their chest, as with much in Russian society, there are unspoken understandings that are broadly understood by almost everybody.

Worse than murder

Over half of all cases brought against soldiers are for military crimes, with over 1,300 being found guilty of going absent without leave (AWOL) since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Another 30 were convicted of desertion, for which they can be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Russian military personnel serving in Ukraine have only been granted short furloughs to visit relatives, which has led to an increasing number of soldiers on leave being unwilling to return to active duty.

In August, serviceman Daniil Zolotukhin was detained for refusing to return to active duty after visiting his sick grandmother for two weeks. Despite explaining that he had been caring for an unwell relative, Zolotukhin was found guilty and sentenced to a year in a penal colony.

Most of those found guilty of going AWOL receive harsh sentences, and these are far less likely to be quashed than even murder charges.

While murders committed by those who served in the war in Ukraine account for less than 1% of all murders carried out in Russia annually, this number is likely to rise as the Russian military is now actively accepting violent criminals into its ranks, having arranged their release from prison.

One of the most high-profile cases is that of Vladislav Kanyus from Kemerovo in Western Siberia who was sentenced to 17 years in a penal colony for the brutal murder of 23-year-old Vera Pekhteleva in July 2022. The officers on duty who failed to respond to the neighbour’s repeated calls for help were not criminally charged but instead placed on leave for their negligence, while Kanyus himself has been pardoned after being released from prison to serve in Ukraine.

Among the military personnel to receive a presidential pardon, at least 17 were convicted of murder, according to Russian independent news outlet Agentstvo. Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov said that they had been pardoned as they had “redeemed themselves with blood” by serving in Ukraine.

On 6 March, a bill was submitted to the State Duma to provide combatants in the war in Ukraine with immunity from criminal prosecution and was signed into law by Putin the same month. The new law applies to soldiers currently in active service, those on leave, and to military veterans.

Soldiers and veterans of the war in Ukraine can now only be charged with 30 crimes, including sexual crimes against minors, participating in a terror attack, trafficking, and — with apparently no irony — mercenary activity.

The authorities believe that by exempting the military from criminal prosecution, military service will become “more attractive” and more people will enlist to bolster Russian ranks in Ukraine.

Editor in chief — Kirill Martynov. Terms of use. Privacy policy.