When soldiers from an elite Russian army brigade were ordered in early April to prepare for a second deployment to Ukraine, fear erupted in the ranks.
The unit, stationed in Russia’s far east in peacetime, first entered Ukraine from Belarus when the war began in late February and saw fierce fighting with Ukrainian forces.
“It soon became clear that not everyone was okay with it. A lot of us just didn’t want to go back,” said Dmitri, a member of the unit who asked not to be identified with his real name “I want to go back to my family – not to a coffin.”
Along with eight others, Dmitri told his commanders that he refused to join the invasion. “They were furious. But they finally calmed down because there was not much they could do,” he said.
He was quickly transferred to Belgorod, a Russian town near the border with Ukraine, where he has been stationed ever since. “I served five years in the army. My contract ends in June. I will serve my remaining time and then I will leave here,” he said. “I have nothing to be ashamed of. We are not officially in a state of war, so they couldn’t force me to go.
Dmitri’s refusal to fight highlights some of the military difficulties the Russian military faced following the Kremlin’s political decision not to officially declare war on Ukraine – preferring instead to describe the invasion, which will soon reach its fourth month, as a “special invasion”. military operation“.
Under Russian military rules, troops who refuse to fight in Ukraine can be sent back but cannot be prosecuted, said Mikhail Benyash, a lawyer who advises soldiers who choose this option.
Benyash said “hundreds and hundreds” of soldiers had contacted his team for advice on how to avoid being sent into combat. Among them were 12 National Guardsmen from the southern Russian city of Krasnodar, who were fired after refusing to travel to Ukraine.
“Commanders try to threaten their soldiers with jail if they dissent, but we tell soldiers they can just say no,” Benyash said, adding that he was not aware of any criminal cases against soldiers who refused to fight. “There is no legal basis for initiating criminal proceedings if a soldier refuses to fight on Russian territory.”
Many soldiers therefore chose to be fired or transferred rather than enter “the meat grinder”, he said.
A similar account to Dmitri’s was told to the BBC Russian Service by Sergey Bokov, a 23-year-old soldier who decided at the end of April to leave the army after fighting in Ukraine. “Our commanders didn’t even argue with us because we weren’t the first to leave,” Bokov said.
Citing Russian military laws, Benyash said it would be harder for soldiers to refuse to fight if Russia declared a full-scale war. “In times of war, the rules are totally different. A refusal would then lead to much more severe penalties. They would look at the time spent in prison.
While the exact number of soldiers refusing to fight remains unclear, such stories illustrate what military experts and Western governments say is one of Russia’s biggest obstacles in Ukraine: a severe shortage of infantry soldiers. .
Moscow initially put about 80% of its main ground combat forces — 150,000 troops — into the war in February, according to Western officials. But significant damage was done to this army, which faced logistical problems, low morale and underrated Ukrainian resistance.
“Putin needs to make a decision about mobilization in the coming weeks,” said Rob Lee, a military analyst. “Russia lacks sufficient ground units with contract soldiers for a sustainable rotation. The troops are running out, they won’t be able to hold out for long.
Lee said one option for the Kremlin would be to allow conscript units to deploy to Ukraine, despite Putin’s previous promises that Russia would not use any conscripts in the war. “The conscripts could fill some gaps, but they will be poorly trained. Many units that are supposed to train conscripts are fighting on their own,” Lee said.
But without conscript battalions, Russia could soon “find it difficult to hold the territory it currently controls in Ukraine, especially since Ukraine is getting better equipment from NATO”, he said. .
Russian authorities quietly stepped up their efforts to recruit new soldiers when it became clear that a quick victory in Ukraine was impossible.
An investigation by the BBC Russian Service showed that the Russian Ministry of Defense filled job websites with job offers, offering people without combat experience opportunities to join the army on lucrative short-term contracts. Some large government-run companies have received letters inviting them to conscript their personnel into the army.
Russia has also turned to mercenaries to bolster its war efforts, deploying fighters from the shadowy Kremlin-linked Wagner Group.
But analysts say voluntary recruits and mercenary groups are unlikely to result in a substantial increase in the number of new soldiers, compared to the numbers that partial or full-scale mobilization would bring.
Despite prior speculation, Putin did not officially declare war on Ukraine during his Victory Day speech on May 9.
Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, said authorities might fear a general mobilization would antagonize large swaths of the population who support the “special operation”.
The Russians “could be in favor of the conflict, but they don’t really want to fight”, he said, adding that a general mobilization would lead to “colossal losses of untrained soldiers”.
And while the current state of the conflict gives Russian soldiers a legal avenue to opt out, some soldiers have complained it has also led to them not being adequately supported.
A junior sergeant said he was injured in one of the recent Ukrainian attacks on Russian border territory where he was stationed. His superiors argued that he should not receive the monetary compensation of up to £2,500 to which injured Russians are entitled under the law because his injury occurred on Russian soil, which which means it does not fall under Russia’s “Special Military Operation” rules.
“It’s unfair, I’m fighting this war like the others in Ukraine, risking my life,” the soldier said. “If I don’t receive the compensation I am entitled to soon, I will go public and make it a major issue.”