Report: Russian soldiers quitting rather than serve in Ukraine

A Reuters special report published today gives some surprising details about how ordinary Russian soldiers are resigning from the military rather than cross the border and fight in Ukraine. The report also gives some insight into how these soldiers "volunteer" for duty in Ukraine, allowing Vladimir Putin to maintain the fiction that the Russian army is not deployed in its neighbor's territory.

The former Russian soldiers who spoke to Reuters, as well as human rights activists, said some soldiers were fearful of being sent to Ukraine, were pressured into going, or disgruntled at the way they were treated after fighting there.

The former tank soldier from Moscow said he would not have gone to Ukraine voluntarily. "No, what for? That's not our war. If our troops were officially there it would be a different story."

He said he had been sent to fight in Ukraine last summer and returned to Russia in September when the first peace talks took place. His crew operated a modernized Russian T-72B3 tank, he said.

"(Back in Russia) we were lined up and told that everyone would get a daily allowance, extras for fighting and medals," he said. But he said that they did not get the extras they expected. "We decided to quit. There were 14 of us."

The names of nine soldiers who quit the Kantemirovskaya division are mentioned in an exchange of letters between Viktor Miskovets, the head of the human resources department of Russia's Western Military District, and Valentina Melnikova, who runs the Alliance of Soldiers' Mothers Committees, a group based in Moscow.

In the letters, seen by Reuters, human rights workers asked Miskovets to approve the soldiers' resignations – which one soldier told Reuters the military had been unwilling to do. The letters do not mention service in Ukraine.

The soldiers left the service on Dec. 12, according to a letter signed by Miskovets. He and his deputy did not answer calls.

Three soldiers from the list, contacted by Reuters, confirmed they had quit the service recently but declined to discuss Ukraine.


Sergei Krivenko, head of a rights group called "Citizen. Army. Rights" and a member of a human rights council created by the Kremlin, has dealt with soldiers' rights since the early 2000s. He said military commanders are trying to find more people who will go to Ukrainevoluntarily, "but this is still 'volunteers' in quotation marks, because there is harsh pressure."

Krivenko said commanders take a carrot-and-stick approach: They offer large financial rewards to contract soldiers willing to go to Ukraine. If soldiers refuse, they are told to resign, he said. "You can't criminally prosecute someone for not following the order, because the order itself doesn't exist on paper. It's only oral."

Since 2012, contract soldiers' pay has risen, said Krivenko, who traveled to Murmansk to meet soldiers, about 30 of whom told him they had been to Ukraine. "Now they receive 20, 30, 40,000 rubles a month depending on their rank. Some even get 60,000 a month."

The average wage in Russia is about 30,000 rubles ($580).

Why is this important? There is little opposition to the war in Ukraine in Russia, largely because Putin has been able to convince most people that he is opposing "fascists" in Kiev who are no different than Hitler. But would that support hold if it could be shown that up to 20,000 Russian soldiers were deployed in a neighboring country and that many soldiers were resigning rather than fight?

Currently, most of the rest of the world prefers to pretend that there are no Russian soldiers in Ukraine. This has allowed Putin to avoid international sanctions that could further cripple the Russian economy. But as the bodies come home and mothers bury their sons killed in Ukraine, it becomes harder for Putin to hide the truth.

Some observers believe that the next phase of the conflict in Ukraine will see Putin throw off all pretenses and send in the Russian army in force, looking for a decisive result. There is little anyone can do to stop him if he chooses that route, and not much stomach in NATO for imposing additional sanctions on Moscow if that were to occur. More than enough reason for Putin to play out his Ukraine end game despite opposition from some soldiers and the families of dead Russian fighters.