When the soldiers of an elite Russian army brigade were told in early April to prepare for a second deployment to Ukraine, fear broke out among the ranks.
The unit, stationed in Russia’s far east during peacetime, first entered Ukraine from Belarus when the war started at the end of February and saw bitter combat with Ukrainian forces.
“It soon became clear that not everyone was onboard with it. Many of us simply did not want to go back,” said Dmitri, a member of the unit who asked not to be identified with his real name. “I want to return to my family – and not in a casket.”
Along with eight others, Dmitri told his commanders that he refused to rejoin the invasion. “They were furious. But they eventually calmed down because there wasn’t much they could do,” he said.
He was soon transferred to Belgorod, a Russian city close to the border with Ukraine, where he has been stationed since. “I have served for five years in the army. My contract ends in June. I will serve my remaining time and then I am out of here,” he said. “I have nothing to be ashamed of. We aren’t officially in a state of war, so they could not force me to go.”
Dmitri’s refusal to fight highlights some of the military difficulties the Russian army has faced as a result of the Kremlin’s political decision not to formally declare war on Ukraine – preferring instead to describe the invasion, which will soon reach its fourth month, as a “special military operation”.
Under Russian military rules, troops who refuse to fight in Ukraine can face dismissal but cannot be prosecuted, said Mikhail Benyash, a lawyer who has been advising soldiers who choose that option.
Benyash said “hundreds and hundreds” of soldiers had been in touch with his team for advice on how they could avoid being sent to fight. Among them were 12 national guardsmen from Russia’s southern city of Krasnodar who were fired after refusing to go to Ukraine.
“Commanders try to threaten their soldiers with prison time if they dissent, but we tell the soldiers that they can simply say no,” Benyash said, adding that he was not aware of any criminal cases against soldiers who refused to fight. “There are no legal grounds to start a criminal case if a soldier refuses to fight while on Russian territory.”
Many soldiers, therefore, have chosen to be fired or transferred rather than going into “the meat grinder”, he said.
A similar account to Dmitri’s was given to the BBC’s Russian service by Sergey Bokov, a 23-year-old soldier who at the end of April decided to leave the army after fighting in Ukraine. “Our commanders didn’t even argue with us because we were not the first ones to leave,” Bokov said.
CONTINUE @ THE GUARDIAN