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“They’d rather die than go back”: The father of a Russian “balker” on his son's incarceration and pressure to return to war

Russian contract soldiers who refuse to return to the combat zone in Ukraine are being kept in custody in the Luhansk Region, which is controlled by the Russian military. They are being pressured to return to the front line. The father of one such soldier shared the details with The Insider anonymously.

After three months of service, contract soldiers were promised a leave and permission to refuse to participate in combat activities, but when they decided to leave Ukraine and submitted their refusals, they were detained and brought to the town of Brianka, Luhansk Region. They’ve spent over a month in lock-up.

“He’d been on the front line for three months and was supposed to return home. As they were approaching Luhansk, their transport turned and took them [to Brianka]. They were brought to the military prosecutor's office, where ‘LPR’ officers process Russian soldiers who have refused to go to war. They are being kept there for their refusal,” the father says.

As the interviewee says, eyewitnesses attest to the abysmal incarceration conditions: “Some sort of pits, torture, and the like. These are the accounts of people who returned from there.”

However, as the man points out, the soldiers are unwilling to return to the combat zone:

“They’d rather die than go back. They don't want to be neck-deep in the blood of their friends and close officers. A Russian soldier may suffer, may be in pain, but he won't go there. I haven't heard of anyone returning to Ukraine.”

He added that his son had signed his contract before the war and had soon received orders for participation in the “special operation” for a term of three months.

“They were told it was a special operation. That they wouldn’t participate in combat activities because they hadn't received proper training, and would only guard the border,” the man recalls.

His son was deployed in Luhansk, where he “recaptured industrial facilities and retrieved fallen soldiers’ bodies”.

According to our interviewee, Russian military commanders claim to have nothing to do with the detained soldiers, saying they are being held by the Luhansk military.

On July 21, Verstka reported the creation of a military detention facility in Luhansk for soldiers who refuse to wage war in Ukraine. The detention center is holding at least 234 servicemen from multiple military units. Many are being kept in basements and garages.

Judging from the soldiers’ and their relatives’ accounts, the prisoners are being kept in basements in small groups. They are guarded by employees of a private military company. The relatives believe the company in question is PMC Wagner.

Verstka shares the story of a Russian soldier imprisoned in Brianka. On July 8, Alexander (the name has been changed) and his peers from a military unit originally based on Sakhalin in the Russian Far East wrote a report refusing to participate in combat activities. Shortly after, he informed his father that a general wanted to see him.

Following that meeting, he was taken to a basement in Brianka along with other soldiers who’d refused to go to war. As Verstka reports, the prisoners are subjected to forced labor in warehouses. They are offered a choice: to return to their units and keep fighting or join a different unit but stay on the front line nonetheless, says Alexander.

At least 33 more soldiers are being kept in Brianka with Alexander. His father has a photograph of the list with the prisoners’ names and shared it with Verstka, but, as the publication points out, the accuracy and authenticity of the document are impossible to verify.

On July 19, Alexander’s father lost contact with him. The last message he sent to his father was about two prisoners being taken from the basement to the detention center.

Verstka writes of a total of 1,793 Russian soldiers refusing to participate in the war since it broke out (an estimate by independent sources). Head of the Free Buryatia Foundation Alexandra Garmazhapova shares that at least 500 Buryat soldiers have terminated their contracts and made it back home.

The relative of a soldier imprisoned in Brianka told The Insider in a live stream that “balkers” abound. The commanders are hesitant to let them go, fearing that other contract troops will follow suit.

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