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“I'd rather go to jail than add to the chaos.” How and why Russian contract servicemen evade war in Ukraine

One year into the full-scale invasion, an increasing number of “five hundredths” - those who refuse to participate in the war - are appearing in the Russian army. It's not just the conscripts who are being sent on suicide missions who are fleeing; even contracted soldiers are finding ways to avoid going to Ukraine. Terminating their contracts before the official end of mobilization is nearly impossible, but many are still seeking any means to stay away from the conflict. The Insider spoke with three Russian contract servicemen and discovered that they're not receiving proper training. Instead, they're learning how to assemble assault rifles by watching YouTube videos and spending hours doing menial tasks like cleaning manure instead of going out on duty. These soldiers have no desire to be cannon fodder in Putin's war.

The interviewees' names have been changed.

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  • Alexander: “I don't give a f*ck about the contract - I don't want to be involved in any sketchy stuff”

  • Yaroslav: “It seems we are only good for fighting against dwarves, everybody is clueless”

  • Eugene: “We are not liberating anyone, we are not under any threat, and I didn't join the army for this”

Alexander: “I don't give a f*ck about the contract - I don't want to be involved in any sketchy stuff”

After signing a contract for military service, I ended up being placed in a special forces regiment through the help of my acquaintances. Although the regiment was not directly associated with the army, it was under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense, with a single general commanding over us. As the war broke out, we happened to be engaged in exercises in Belarus.

Around 5 o'clock in the morning, we embarked on a march spanning approximately 200 kilometers without encountering any resistance. Once we arrived at our destination, each group was assigned its own tasks, such as reconnaissance and support. However, we were left in the dark about our mission, as the command failed to provide any explanation. We were completely clueless about where we were headed and for what purpose. Later on, approximately 20 members of my group left - this was still possible at the time. Each person submitted a refusal, citing that the orders contradicted the law. It was not stipulated anywhere in our country's regulations that we could deploy the military in another nation's territory solely to safeguard our citizens.

Everyone was filled with questions, with the main one being: why was such a massive front established if we were defending the values of the citizens of “DNR” and “LNR”? After all, we were advancing from Belarus and Crimea, not from these republics' territories. I believe that the “DNR” and “LNR” needed to be protected, but not to the point of destroying Ukrainian cities and killing civilians. The objective should have been to push Ukraine away from the republics' borders, but instead, we ended up near Kyiv, and it was utter crap. During my time there, I was unable to comprehend the actual situation, and that's why I felt the need to leave. Had the objectives been more transparent, I would not have quit. The purpose of the fight was unclear, and the soldiers were being treated like cannon fodder.

The objective was to defend the “DNR”, but instead, we ended up near Kyiv, and it was utter crap

I can confidently state that the preparations for this war had commenced in December. We underwent intensive training in reconnaissance and familiarization with forest and urban environments. However, when we arrived in Ukraine, my commander was unsure and had no idea what to do. Despite the operation being presented as a joint exercise, his only task was to follow orders and proceed with the mission.

Upon our return to Russia and filing of reports, our command labeled us as traitors to the motherland. This is an arduous circumstance because I am aware that many individuals are currently being sent to camps in the “LNR”, where they are being held under torturous conditions for refusing to continue serving. When someone calls you a coward and traitor, it leaves a bitter taste because each of us initially aspired to dedicate our lives to serving and protecting the homeland.

Being in a warzone and in a permanent deployment point are two distinct experiences. The dynamics at the forefront are dissimilar to that of a permanent deployment. In a permanent deployment, you can simply submit a refusal and be discharged, but in a war zone, it's a different story. Refusing orders during hostilities can result in severe consequences as the penalty for disobeying an order in a combat situation is much more severe. I realize that had I not refused then, and had I stayed or gone back, I could have easily lost my life, or been sent back into the danger zone, and as we all know, that's going back into the fire.

Russian military in Ukraine
Russian military in Ukraine

Our group engaged in reconnaissance and didn't focus on particular objectives. During our stay in Ukraine, most members of our group remained unharmed except for one individual who sustained a shrapnel wound. Two others went missing, but it was probable that they were killed in action. During a skirmish, they retreated and went into the forest while Ukrainians passed nearby. We subsequently searched the area thoroughly but failed to locate anyone.

In a combat situation, the exact goals are not always clear, and it doesn't matter whether you endorse them or not. The situation is messed up, and you don't give a f*ck about the goals the government is trying to achieve. Living with the constant threat of being hit by a missile is unnerving. Additionally, there were some psychologically challenging experiences, such as encountering the body of a deceased child missing an arm. Based on the proximity of a Ukrainian infantry fighting vehicle sitting just 50 meters away, I presumed it was a casualty caused by the Ukrainian side, but now I am unsure.

The situation is messed up, and you don't give a f*ck about the goals the government is trying to achieve – you only hope you won't be hit by a rocket

The nature of the ongoing war here is vastly different from the situation in Chechnya. I won't try to act brave or heroic because what's happening now is profoundly frightening. It's quite unpleasant that the commanders seem more concerned about their own survival rather than the welfare of their subordinates. Even though war zones are not expected to offer much comfort, I don't give a f*ck about the contract - I don’t want to be involved in any sketchy stuff. The reality is genuinely alarming, and our commanders openly say to us that we will either return from here as killed or wounded in action.

I don't give a f*ck about the contract — I don’t want to be involved in any sketchy stuff

Although when you are shooting, you feel more at peace: you just realize that this is a war, and you can focus on the recoil. As a projectile whizzes past you, you find yourself lying there in a daze, realizing that it's beyond your control and you can only wait for it to pass, uncertain whether it will hit you or not. It's like surfacing after being underwater – the sensation is similar after an artillery barrage.

Yaroslav: “It seems we are only good for fighting against dwarves, everybody is clueless”

Since I had a wife and two children, I was initially deemed unsuitable for military service. However, I had a persistent desire to join special forces or a similar unit. Eventually, I was informed that I could only enlist on a contractual basis, but I had to obtain specialized secondary education beforehand. After completing my education, I presented myself at the military recruitment office and was subsequently dispatched to one of the Russian bases in Tajikistan, where I began my service in intelligence. But as time passed, I came to the realization that it wasn't really intelligence work but rather meaningless tasks.

As per the contract, I was required to undergo three months of probationary period and training, but the latter was not provided as expected. Typically, anyone who is assigned to serve in Tajikistan is sent to the training center in Elan, but instead of receiving training, I ended up spending three weeks lying on a bed with my fellow comrades.

After a month, we were provided train tickets to Yekaterinburg, from where we were flown to Tajikistan. Once we arrived, we found ourselves with nothing to do but laze around, eat, and stroll around the base. Initially, we were informed that no one from our base would be sent to Ukraine, but later it was discovered that everyone was being dispatched. Consequently, there were very few of us left, and we were tasked with standing guard duty day after day, dressed in our uniforms and holding assault rifles at various locations.

The first words that the commander told us when we arrived there were: “Guys, go to the headquarters to terminate the contract and go home,” but no one listened to him. Unfortunately.

I only held the assault rifle once, right at the beginning, when they handed it to me with a casual “take a look.” They also inquired if I knew how to disassemble it, to which I replied negatively. Consequently, I was instructed to wait, with the promise that they would come and provide instructions. However, after sitting around for five hours with the weapon, I decided to learn how to disassemble and assemble it myself by watching instructional videos on YouTube. Eventually, they came to check on my progress, and once they saw that I had learned, they let me go. I returned the assault rifle to the weapon storage room and never saw it again.

I learned how to assemble and disassemble the assault rifle by watching YouTube

During my three months in Tajikistan, I was only once on guard duty, and I also slept there. The situation was similar for the other guys who came with me. Those who weren't on duty were usually given some kind of work. One of our tasks was to clean up the field next to the base where the locals grazed their cows and sheep. We had to use shovels to pick up their droppings. When they took me to one of these training grounds, I simply stuck the shovel in the ground, sat down, and told them that I was quitting and wanted to be taken back to the base.

I had been attempting to terminate my contract for two months while stationed in Tajikistan. They told me that according to the rules I had to finish my conscript service first and then file a report. No conscripts were serving at that base, so I was sent to Chebarkul in the Chelyabinsk region. I've been here since October 2021 and I'm still trying to quit. Initially, they threatened to discharge me for not fulfilling my contractual obligations, but the issue was not pursued further due to the absence of a commanding officer in charge of our unit. There's an acting commander, but those responsible for processing the necessary paperwork are not heeding his instructions, resulting in a situation resembling a childish game of one-upmanship. Furthermore, with the onset of mobilization, they informed me that my discharge was unlikely to happen.

Despite writing a second report with the help of the Movement of Conscientious Objectors and taking it to the commander, who realized that he couldn't simply reject it since everything in it was in accordance with the law, my application for dismissal still wasn't accepted. It was taken to the prosecutor's office, where I also wrote a letter requesting that they oversee the process of my dismissal. However, I was still informed that I would not be discharged.

Then I withdrew all my applications and simply came to the commander for the hundredth time with a request to be discharged. For some reason he agreed, and now I have an extract from the discharge order. It says that I should be discharged and transferred. I'm still waiting for this to happen.

Currently, I am staying at home and avoiding any contact with the military. I made it clear to the acting commander that I won't participate in any drills or guard duties. Moreover, I still haven't received a proper uniform, which was given out to conscripts and mobilized soldiers. We agreed I would stay at home and report only when necessary. This is a common practice, and many others who had signed a contract instead of doing a conscript service and managed to resign prior to the mobilization are also staying in rented apartments.

All contract servicemen who managed to resign before the mobilization are staying in rented apartments

A contract serviceman earns a monthly salary of 30,000 rubles, while in Tajikistan I earned a minimum of 55,000 rubles. However, even with this higher salary, it is still much less than what I earned in my civilian job. I don't know why I was even attracted to join the army, it must have been some sort of mental confusion. Additionally, I have not received my salary for the past two months. It seems that here, whether it's on the battlefield or during training, they screw you over with the money.

The conscripts here do not acquire any real warrior skills and are relegated to basic labor duties, such as loading and cleaning. It's not uncommon to see them sweeping melted snow across the pavement, presumably to expedite drying. Even the mobilized soldiers, regardless of age, share the same lack of experience and hardly ever handle weapons - some might have fired just a few rounds a handful of times. It seems we are only good for fighting against dwarves, everybody here is clueless.

A lieutenant who was a conscientious objector told us he had been taken to a basement when he refused to participate in combat. He was not given the opportunity to wash and was provided with a bucket for his bodily needs. The experience had a strong impact on him and he is currently receiving treatment in a mental hospital. Interestingly, his discharge from service was attributed to psychological disorders.

Before the war, there was a military unit in Chebarkul, which consisted of 12,000 contract soldiers. Almost none of them survived the war and many of those who did were left disabled. That was why they decided to declare a mobilization.

Of the 12,000 contract soldiers who served in the Chebarkul unit, almost no one survived

The accounts of those few who remained relatively unscathed are quite similar, with the survivors recounting that they managed to fire a few shots from Soviet tanks before being bombed. Some were able to flee the battlefield. Having heard enough of these stories, I made a vow not to put myself in harm's way, to refrain from taking the lives of others, and to resist joining this army that fell far short of my dreams.

The command also engaged in unfair practices. Commanders who themselves did not want to die were sitting in the rear and sending soldiers to die under enemy fire. Threats of punishment, such as being sent to a penal colony, were used to enforce compliance with orders. While in peacetime such a commander could protect their soldiers in front of superiors, the realities of war changed everything. While he may feel sympathy for his troops, he doesn't himself want to go to prison or die and he has to do his job. Soldiers who returned from the front lines are now either trying to continue serving or to be discharged. Unfortunately, there is a risk of being sent back to the front lines or to prison if they refuse.

Initially, I believed that the war was fought for a worthwhile cause, but my opinion changed rapidly. I'm also being threatened with the prospect of being sent to Ukraine, but I make it clear to everyone I will not go. I am aware of individuals who have also refused and are now either incarcerated or in penal settlements. The punishment is relatively lenient, considering that one can be released on parole and return home after six months. I would rather face imprisonment than risk my life for a meaningless cause.

Eugene: “We are not liberating anyone, we are not under any threat, and I didn't join the army for this”

Currently, I am on a vacation and I'm soon resuming my service while keeping an eye on what the future holds. I joined the service after completing my college education, prior to the war. After graduating, I lacked a clear sense of direction and purpose, which ultimately led to the unforeseen circumstances I am experiencing at present.

My contract ends this year, and I just calmly want to complete my contract and leave, but so far they've been stubbornly saying “no” to me. So now I have to put up with the consequences of my past decisions and try not to take part in what is happening. I want to quit - to do something useful, I want to create, not destroy.

I want to quit — do something useful, I want to create, not destroy

My expertise is not deemed suitable for deployment to Ukraine, the level of training is insufficient, but nonetheless, so last year I was offered to serve there under an alternate military specialization. Naturally, I declined the offer, which prompted my appearance before the certification commission, who stated that my personality did not meet their requirements. As a result, I submitted my discharge documents, and a discussion ensued with the military prosecutor's office. Efforts were made to delay my discharge, but as September arrived, it became evident that this ordeal would inevitably lead to a dead end.

During that period, there wasn't a significant degree of radicalization, and as such, my fellow officers didn't exert much pressure on me. However, they began treating me differently, and at times, there were insinuations that I may end up in the prosecutor's office and then in prison. Mostly, though, everyone was discussing me surreptitiously.

I was in a state of uncertainty until I underwent the medical examination. There was a glimmer of hope that a pathological condition would be discovered, and I would be discharged, but that didn't happen. It eventually became apparent that I had to continue my military service.

Right from the start, I opposed this war as I believed that creating chaos was not the solution, and even if I wasn't discharged, I'd rather go to jail than add to the chaos. We are not liberating anyone, we are not under any threat, and I didn't join the army for this. The problem is, even those in prison are being sent to the war front.

Everything about my case is hazy. A critical moment is unfolding for me as my contract is expiring, and it's clear that investing further in me makes little sense. My specialization demands significant training, but nobody is likely to expend considerable effort and time on me.

Nor can I leave the country and go somewhere else. I know that many countries provide asylum if you arrive officially, and I do not have a document that would allow me to cross the border legally.

The majority of my fellow servicemen are reticent in their opposition to the ongoing conflict. Initially, everyone was apprehensive, but the human psyche tends to normalize situations with familiarity. Hence, when individuals return from the conflict zone unscathed, it creates an illusion that it's not as hazardous as previously thought. Some return to the conflict zone with a grin, brimming with confidence that they're undertaking a vital mission. Many who adopt a passive stance justify their participation by citing their military identity, claiming that they're obligated to follow orders irrespective of their personal sentiments.

Some of the officers I know express a sense of regret over their inability to steal cars from civilians in Ukraine. Astonishingly, they tell it as a funny joke without acknowledging how inappropriate and unethical it is. Their purported objective is to liberate the country and combat Nazism, yet their intentions deviate to stealing from the very citizens they are supposed to be “saving.”

Some of the officers I know express a sense of regret over their inability to steal cars from civilians in Ukraine

The soldiers' morale in the conflict zone is abysmally low, and I believe it's not solely due to the war. It's implausible that witnessing the horrors of war would instigate them to loot and rape Ukrainian girls. It's a repugnant and detestable behavior that I refuse to be associated with.

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