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Almost every new day of Russia’s war in Ukraine brings with it fresh stories of “meat grinder” assaults – Russian attacks in which large numbers of poorly trained, mobilized troops are sacrificed in the pursuit of questionable military objectives. As a result, more and more Russian soldiers are running from the front. According to estimates from Mediazona, more than 8,000 Russian soldiers have gone AWOL since the start of the full-scale war. The Insider spoke with deserters who managed to make it abroad, and with activists from the Tbilisi-based anti-war charity Get Lost (previously Go by the Forest). They say that a successful escape from the Russian armed forces is easier than it may sound: confiscated passports can be reissued, and the attitude toward desertion from relatives and fellow soldiers is gradually softening.

Content
  • Attitudes in the army

  • Avoiding frontline combat duty

  • Taxi, funeral, hospital, vacation: popular desertion schemes

  • “AWOL for a year, still not on the federal wanted list”: Hiding inside Russia

  • Doing without paperwork

  • Possible destinations

  • Illegal border crossings

  • Building a new life abroad

  • How relatives and coworkers react to desertion

  • What assistance is available to fighters wishing to desert

RU

The names of figures in this story have been changed in order to protect their real identities.

In February, the anti-war charity Get Lost reported a year-on-year explosion in the number of requests from Russian soldiers wishing to desert: from 28 in January 2023 to 284 in January 2024. Such cases already make up one-third of requests processed by the Tbilisi-based anti-war group.

Analysts are all but unanimous in their expectation that the number of deserters will keep growing. Tired from the war, soldiers constantly complain of poor logistics, lack of rotation, and their commanders’ tendency to place the men under their command in avoidable danger. Money, rather than patriotism or ideology, remains the dominant incentive for professional soldiers in the Russian armed forces.

Moscow’s disproportionate reliance on ethnic minorities, socially disadvantaged recruits, and convicted criminals only exacerbates the problem. Out of 1,800 deserters surveyed by Verstka in the first six months of the war, approximately 1,100 were natives of Russia’s ethnic republics. The largest cases of desertion, in which roughly 100 soldiers abandoned their service, occurred in those Wagner PMC and Storm Z units that were largely comprised of inmates.

Attitudes in the army

The majority of soldiers in the Russian army are looking to leave, according to deserters interviewed by The Insider. “Ninety percent or so want to quit. Everyone's tired. No one wants to go to war,” Alexander says, who ended up at the front in November 2023 rather than face a stint in jail. His recruiters promised that “it will all blow over before New Year.” He enlisted with Storm V.

Pavel, a career military man who deserted and was granted asylum in Finland, shares a similar story: “Many (myself included) pinned their hopes on rumors that the end [of the war] was near. No one is keen on participating. Support for Putin and [former Defense Minister] Shoigu among soldiers and officers is near zero. Many are attached to their comrades, simply waiting for the [war] to end.”

Konstantin, a career officer who abandoned his military unit and made it to a post-Soviet state that remains on speaking terms with Moscow, notes that even in the first six months of the full-scale invasion, only about 10% of Russia's military personnel believed in “fighting NATO” or “Ukrainian Nazis.” As Konstantin tells it, the majority stayed in the armed forces largely due to the lack of employment opportunities outside the army — whether in Russia or abroad. Some were discouraged by the cases of deserters who found themselves without papers in unsafe countries like Kazakhstan and Armenia, where they risked being extradited back to Russia.

Even career officers are growing tired of the war. As a Get Lost activist told The Insider, after the project’s launch in late 2022, the majority of requests came from the recently mobilized, but now the trend has shifted towards career officers, volunteers, and contract soldiers.

Today, the majority of requests processed by Get Lost come from career officers, volunteers, and contract soldiers

Avoiding frontline combat duty

Russian human rights group Conscious Escapist Movement helps conscripts who are unwilling to go to war. Unfortunately, the group is not broadly known, so Russians who recently received a draft notice are often unaware that it offers them a potential option for staying out of a trench.

At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, many anti-war Russians chose imprisonment over induction into the army; however, it soon became clear that prison could not save them from being sent to the front. Defense Ministry recruiters toured around penal colonies, forcing inmates to sign a contract with the armed forces (as was covered by The Insider in “Confessions of Mothers and Wives of Inmates Who Perished in Russia-Ukraine War”). “If you refuse to sign a contract to join the fighting, they will make your life hell at the penal facility,” Get Lost activists confirm.

Poor health is not sufficient grounds for exemption either. “We have plenty of deserters with hepatitis С and other diseases that in theory make them unfit for military service and combat duty. They were treated as less than humans, sent to assault teams indiscriminately, to their sure death,” an activist says.

For instance, Dmitry was mobilized despite a case of varicose veins so advanced that he was sometimes unable to move his leg. He managed to get a respite for treatment, but after the surgery, Dmitry was told he was expected to take up duty in the combat zone within 14 days. Failing to avoid conscription on the grounds of poor health, Dmitry decided to desert.

Taxi, funeral, hospital, vacation: popular desertion schemes

As studies of desertion show, cases of soldiers escaping from the frontline are rare — and not just in Ukraine. During the Vietnam War, 39% of American deserters escaped during leave. Only 7% deserted from Vietnam itself, and just 2% got away directly from the battlefield. Studies of other major conflicts in which the U.S. was involved show a similar pattern. Sentences discovered by Mediazona indicate that most Russian soldiers who go AWOL do so during redeployment, while on vacation, or while being treated in a hospital.

Most Russian soldiers who go AWOL do so during redeployment, while on vacation, or while being treated in a hospital

Imprisoned opposition politician Ilya Yashin reports a growing number of deserters among his fellow inmates:

“Shrapnel-struck soldiers who miraculously survived the shelling are convinced that their debt to their Homeland has been paid in full and that they earned the right to be demobilized. But the Homeland, through the mouth of a military doctor, callously states: ‘you are fit and must resume service.’ So they decide that a life in prison is better than death in the trenches.”

This is what happened to Pavel. In the fall of 2022, he was hospitalized with a grenade wound. Twenty days later, while he was still recovering, his commander called him, demanding that Pavel return to the front. Instead of complying, he decided to desert. Pavel withdrew all the money from his bank account, bought an unregistered SIM card, and hitched a ride to another city. He spent a few months in hiding, preparing to cross the border with Finland.

In most cases, those wishing to abandon service first have to leave the occupied territory of Ukraine. Konstantin, another deserter, explained the challenge this poses:

“You have to go through border control, and there are military police at the border, checking your papers and personal belongings. You need a combat order signed by your commanders, either the unit commander or chief of staff. So it is quite problematic for military personnel to leave [occupied] Ukrainian territory without an order from above.
“People first try to get into a hospital inside Russia, go on leave, or find an official pretext for leaving the unit. For example, they often go to Crimea or Rostov for supplies, like fuel and food.
“But you can't leave without a military order: the military police can't be bribed, and the checks are thorough. They check gun serial numbers, and if they find grenades or other combat equipment, they seize it and report you.
“In any case, you have to get your commander to sign off on your leave. Servicemen can be granted either basic leave after at least six months of combat duty at the front, or leave due to family circumstances, such as the birth of a child, the death of a close relative, and so on. Not many people take the trouble to check documents at the front, so you can reach an agreement with personnel officers (mainly clerks handling paperwork) or provide images of fake documents. Some try faking illness. They may be sent to a hospital in the LDNR [the unrecognized breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk] and can attempt to escape from there. Alternatively, you could simply buy leave. Many commanders won't turn down good money.”

Interestingly, Get Lost cites some successful cases of Russian soldiers escaping directly from the front. Grigory Sverdlin, the group’s founder recounts the story of a soldier who reached out to the charity, successfully deserted, and helped 50 of his peers:

“We used UAZ minivans, like the ones used by military medics. We put up red cross signs in the windows and drove six or eight people each. They wrapped their body parts with bloodied bandages, and some even traveled in black plastic bags, playing dead.
“From real medics, we learned about the checkpoint they used for emergency evacuation. There are border checks there too, but they make an exception for medical vehicles. The driver and the ‘commanding officer’ in the front would say they were coming from a nearby hospital, which was lacking the necessary equipment for severe cases, and that they had to hurry. This was how we got out about 50 fighters. No one checked us, and it worked every time.
“Meanwhile, the first group bought civilian clothes for everyone and rented an apartment for the others to wash and change clothes, which is important. Otherwise, they could have been grabbed by the military police, who always patrol towns near the border.”

The deserter shared this story with Sverdlin shortly before crossing the border into Norway.

Another common way to desert from the front is by taxi. Russian military personnel routinely use taxis for grocery shopping, to go on leave, and to have narcotics delivered to the front. An average ride out of the combat zone costs a few hundred dollars.

This was how Alexander escaped. He was wounded in the Battle of Robotyne and hospitalized, but was soon sent back to the front. At the temporary deployment point, he decided to desert:

“One of our commanders would go home after every mission. He gave me the number of a taxi driver who knows the way around all the checkpoints. I told him I had a girl coming to see me for a couple of days. The ride from Berdiansk to Donetsk cost me 50,000 rubles [~$560], and 70,000 [~$780] would have gotten me to Rostov.
“In all, everything went smoothly. There were military police everywhere, but they never pulled me over. To be on the safe side, I rode with people I knew.
“If you're in civilian clothes, you get a safe pass. Most importantly, you have to come up with a legend and warn the driver. I had been pulled over before, when I went to town. I said I was just a worker.
“Those who want to leave can find drivers online. They are easy to google: just type in your location and destination. I reached an agreement with my driver easily — told him straight up who I was and what I was doing. He took the hint and drove around all the checkpoints.”

Konstantin adds that having other civilians in the car besides the driver will reduce suspicion.

In some cases, soldiers slip away, taking advantage of the confusion in the war zone. “A man recently got out. He just wrote that everything was fine. He was in a forest near Shebekino, in the Belgorod Region. Apparently, he had left the war zone by crossing the border into Belgorod Region. Due to instability in the area, he managed to escape. He hid in the woods for a few weeks, got in touch with us, and we got him out of Russia,” an activist says.

Get Lost does not help deserters leave Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine. Firstly, the charity cannot reliably verify the identities of would-be deserters and the contacts of locals willing to help them. Secondly, deserters caught inside Russia face only prison — and possible redeployment to the front. In both cases, there is still a chance to get out. By contrast, if a Get Lost client gets caught in the war zone, “beyond the ribbon,” they face execution or torture pits. Therefore, Get Lost only offers general advice to Russian soldiers wishing to desert from occupied Ukrainian territories.

Deserters caught inside Russia face only prison, while those caught in the war zone face execution or torture pits

“AWOL for a year, still not on the federal wanted list”: Hiding inside Russia

Military police start looking for a deserter two days after he goes missing or fails to return from leave. In most cases, a district police officer comes to his place of residence, and a regional-level alert is put out. Often, this is the extent of the law enforcement effort.

Importantly, if a person is not on the federal wanted list, they can escape prosecution simply by moving to another region. Get Lost recommends deserters get a new phone and SIM card and have someone else register it in their name. It is also advisable to use cash instead of bank cards. Finally, it is safer to cease all contact with friends and relatives so that they do not give away information by accident.

It is also important to leave military uniforms and weapons behind, as the possession of military property could attract attention while simultaneously providing the authorities with an additional incentive to track down the deserter. Get Lost founder Sverdlin recalls a client who forgot to remove his tactical gloves on the way to the border, a mistake that did not escape the attention of the military police. The would-be deserter ended up arrested.

Activists explain:

“If a person decides to stay in Russia, we always warn them that sooner or later they will be declared wanted. It may happen in a month or six months; it may not happen at all due to an oversight. Some people have been AWOL for a year and a half and are still not on the federal wanted list. Why? No idea. Maybe it's easier to report them as missing.”

Dmitry, who suffers from varicose veins, deserted and hid in northern Russia after the military authorities decided to send him to war despite his illness. However, FSB officers still managed to catch him as he was leaving his home. Dmitry was sent to his military unit until the investigator could make a decision about whether or not to prosecute him:

“There were 150 or so people like me there. No one made a fuss about being held illegally. Everyone was happy to get drunk with the money they gave us. But I found a lawyer who handles criminal, torture-related, and political cases. Most importantly, he was against the war. We went to the unit commander. My lawyer bailed me out, and I would just check in.
“Everyone else used a dumbass lawyer whose business cards were on the desk in the room where they held us. I immediately realized it was just another shady business.
“Then after some time, the investigator called me in and told me to return [to the unit] or he would put me in jail. The lawyer said there was a way for me to leave Russia. We contacted Get Lost, and they suggested a route. My lawyer found a person who helped me travel across Russia without charge.”

Doing without paperwork

In most cases, Russian military personnel have to give up their passports. Just to apply for a passport good for international travel, career officers need permission from their superiors. Sometimes, Russian soldiers are forced to give up even their domestic IDs. Still, due to poor interagency coordination, some soldiers manage to keep their passports by simply not reporting them (it is not obligatory to have a passport in Russia, and many Russians only have domestic IDs).

A domestic ID is easy to reissue. According to Get Lost activists, the process can be completed within five or seven days if the applicant is not on the federal wanted list.

A domestic ID can be easily reissued within five or seven days if the applicant is not on the federal wanted list

Getting a passport is more complicated. Activists recommend leaving Russia and trying to apply for a passport at a Russian embassy abroad. For those who have not been put on a wanted list, there is at least a chance that the document might be issued. However, the charity has yet to convince any of its beneficiaries that this option is safe, as many deserters fear that they will risk arrest by turning up at a Russian diplomatic mission abroad, even if no such incidents have been reported.

Possible destinations

Russian nationals can travel to four countries without a passport: Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Belarus and Kyrgyzstan cooperate with Russian security services and extradite people at the first request, so these countries can only be considered transit destinations. Armenia and Kazakhstan are still considered relatively safe — despite individual cases of kidnapping carried out by the Russian military.

This is how Kazakhstan extradited Major Mikhail Zhilin of the Federal Guard Service in late December 2022. On May 17 of this year, it became known that another deserter, Russian contract soldier Kamil Kasimov, had been detained in Astana on Apr. 23 and was being forcibly held at a military base in Priozersk (Kazakhstan).

In the Armenian city of Gyumri, where the Russian military base is the backbone of the local economy, Russian military police kidnapped two Russian deserters. One of them was transported to Russia despite the objections of the Armenian authorities. The other was still being held at the military base at the time of publication.

Russians traveling to Kazakhstan have to pass Russian border control, which means deserters run a higher risk of getting arrested. Konstantin, the career officer who managed to escape his uint, recalls how he crossed the border:

“As far as I know, there is no single database of servicemen or mobilized Russians, so border guards make decisions on a case-by-case basis, mostly looking at the person's behavior. If you remain calm and polite and can clearly state your itinerary and purpose of travel, there shouldn’t be any problems. Therefore, before departure, it is absolutely necessary to work out your legend, prepare paperwork, return tickets, and so on.
“When I was going through the border, the guard asked me if I’d been in the army, and I said I hadn't because of my diabetes. I knew he was unlikely to ask me for medical proof so I tried to remain as calm as possible. In my case, what caught their eye was the condition of my passport, dirty and almost falling apart after combat operations. But it was still a valid ID, so they had no reason not to let me through.”

From Russia, one can only get to Armenia by plane, which means deserters will also be inspected by Russian border guards when leaving through the airport. Therefore, when traveling to Armenia, it is safer for deserters to do so via a third country.

And of course, those with a valid passport can choose from a much greater number of destinations. Get Lost activists help deserters and draft dodgers work out the safest route based on their circumstances.

Illegal border crossings

As a Get Lost activist notes, the risks of illegally crossing the border from Russia into Kazakhstan are comparable to those of crossing into Finland — but the latter option pays off a lot better. In Finland, deserters can receive political asylum, housing, medical care, and allowances, whereas Kazakhstan offers no asylum, limited transit options, and no guarantees of safety from persecution by Russian authorities. As a result, the country has lost its appeal, especially after Mikhail Zhilin's extradition.

Pavel, who left his military career behind, managed to illegally cross the border into Finland:

“I bought warm clothes, thermal underwear, a rescue blanket, a camouflage coat, canned food, gas for the camping stove, and other small things. I studied the area on maps, focusing on the most important features (bogs, rivers, roads, guardhouses), and made several routes. Once I picked the one I liked the most, I traveled to a nearby marshland to check if the ice held. I also read websites and forums of local fishermen and hunters, who often share their experiences online (including encounters with border guards).
“I used the Sasplanet app to study the maps. There, I studied satellite images (Google, Bing, Yandex), OSM maps, general staff maps, and Wiki maps. On some of the maps, the data had been censored, so I cross-referenced them for more accurate information.
“Another important tip: I bought candy and protein bars. The hike is very energy-consuming, so snacks helped a lot. I regretted not having a thermos, as my water froze overnight, even though I’d wrapped the flask in foil and added sugar (which makes the freezing point a little lower), so I had to eat snow. The big mistake was not wearing the right shoes, as I ended up having frostbite on my feet.
“I also bought hunting skis and poles. It's better to buy more expensive and stronger poles. They are very easy to break in the wild (although I was lucky to fix mine quickly). It is also better to buy more expensive bindings, while skis are less important — even the cheapest ones will do if they can carry your weight.
“All in all, the preparation took me probably two or three months. I lived in rented apartments, sometimes changing cities. I did not keep in touch with any of my friends or relatives — only through third persons. If I needed medical care, I went to private clinics. To rent apartments and register at clinics, I used a doctored passport scan with altered data. I also wore glasses, which I’d never worn before, despite being slightly myopic. I grew out my hair and beard and avoided places where there might be facial recognition cameras (especially the subway). I never used intercity public transport and only hitchhiked.
“I could have managed in a couple of weeks if I wanted to, but I waited for frosty weather to make it safer to cross the swamps. Plus, I'm good at skiing, since I did it at school and university. I was also wary of bears and wanted to wait until they went into hibernation. In addition, border guards use dogs less in the cold months and tend to spend less time patrolling in bad weather.»

Once in Finland, the ex-officer sought out the European country’s border guards himself and surrendered to them.

Building a new life abroad

As The Insider's interviewee at Get Lost notes, the main challenge faced by most deserters is the absence of passports. According to the charity, there are now more than 400 Russian deserters in CSTO states: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Without a passport, they cannot leave, get a residence permit, or seek official employment.

However, these countries are preferable to Europe for many Russian deserters because a large share of the population is Russian-speaking. Culturally, it is easier to integrate because of the common Soviet past — and because many Russian soldiers are representatives of ethnic minorities whose culture is similar to that of Central Asia and the Caucasus. Deserters who have entered Kazakhstan or Armenia illegally can seek legal assistance from local human rights defenders who partner with Get Lost.

For many Russian deserters, former Soviet republics are preferable to Europe because there are fewer cultural and language barriers

Naturally, money is an issue for many deserters. Finding a job in a new country can be problematic, especially in the poorer post-Soviet states. Some deserters manage to put aside their military earnings, but many escape before their first payday. In addition, servicemen who spent time on the front have already often spent much of their earnings on equipment and other military needs.

In Armenia, deserters can seek assistance with integration and employment from HUME, an organization that helps Russian migrants from all walks of life. Peer support is also available in Kazakhstan, where Russian deserters have set up Farewell to Arms, a charity seeking to establish a mechanism for providing international documents to those who fled the military.

However, emigrant communities tend to be small, and news about illegal new arrivals often reaches the Russian security services with notable speed. Deserters who carelessly share the details of their escape in a public space may end up kidnapped by Russian military police, as happened in the Armenian town of Gyumri. Given the presence of the Russian military base, human rights activists advise against traveling there. Although Yerevan, the Armenian capital, also hosts a Russian military base, no abductions have occurred there so far.

For some, health issues complicate any potential move. “Some of our clients still have shrapnel in their bodies because they didn’t have the time for surgery. Some were denied surgery — they were told it was fine and that they were free to go. Some ran away before surgery, seizing the opportunity for escape. If the illegal [border] crossing is physically demanding, such deserters find it harder to get out of Russia. Finally, they have to solve their health problems in a new country,” a Get Lost activist explains.

Many Get Lost clients suffer from chronic diseases, as there is hardly any diagnosis that Russian enlistment officers view as grounds for exemption from conscription.

And of course, emigration is fraught with mental health challenges for everyone, but deserters coming from recent combat experience likely have it the hardest. Aside from post-traumatic stress disorder, they suffer from apathy, depression, and isolation. Get Lost offers one-time psychological counseling for urgent cases — for want of the resources for in-depth assistance with adaptation and treatment — and can suggest free counseling options for those who require further care.

Many deserters also fear for their family members back home. Konstantin notes that the Russian authorities always interrogate deserters’ relatives and can check their phones or search their apartments. However, Get Lost activists have not yet observed any case of relatives being prosecuted for complicity. During interrogation, it is advisable to invoke Article 51 of the Constitution, which enshrines the right not to testify against oneself and one's relatives.

Authorities always interrogate deserters’ relatives and can check their phones or search their apartments

How relatives and coworkers react to desertion

Servicemen often fear condemnation from relatives and coworkers if they walk away from the military, and at the beginning of the war, many deserters really did have to cut ties with almost everyone they knew. In February 2023, 47% of respondents in a Khronika survey said they disapproved of those who left the country to avoid mobilization, while only 36% said they were sympathetic. But by April, the situation had changed: only 30% condemned draft dodgers, while 45% were sympathetic. Throughout 2023, support for the war in Russian society has been declining on almost every key metric. This also applies to military personnel and their social circles.

“When I was leaving, all my relatives had a strongly negative reaction. Those who are leaving today get along well with their relatives and friends, and even get financial and moral support from them. People are starting to come around. Those who cut all contact with their relatives before are getting in touch with them, and only about half of deserters do not communicate with people back home,” Konstantin says.

“As for my fellow fighters, I only called one. The rest of those I got along with are already dead. I could feel his general disapproval, though he didn’t say anything specific. Most of my relatives have been supportive — except for some surprises. My cousin, with whom we’d been on good terms since childhood, said nasty things behind my back,” Pavel recalls.

Alexander says he hasn't faced judgment at all. His friends and relatives have been understanding. As for Dmitry, he was referred to Get Lost by his mother.

What assistance is available to fighters wishing to desert

The main assistance Get Lost can offer is to suggest a safe evacuation route. The activists consider each fighter’s unique circumstances, including location, available documents, presence on the wanted list, and so on.

If necessary, they arrange temporary shelter, provided by volunteers who can put up one or two people at a time. If a deserter gets caught, the charity connects them with a lawyer to handle their case. Abroad, Get Lost cooperates with local human rights groups that can prevent a deserter from being extradited.

The hardest part for most deserters is to simply gather up the courage and leave. Some don't want to leave their comrades behind, others are simply afraid. Get Lost activists note:

“Some expect us to pick them up at their location, take them by the hand, and guide them through all the circles of hell. It's very difficult to help someone who is not ready to act. You tell him: ‘Go and get your passport reissued.’ He says: ‘No, I'm too scared. I won't do anything, just get me to safety in Europe.’ It doesn't work that way.
“But everyone who decides to take action has every chance of succeeding. The first thing they need to do is get in touch with us. The sooner they contact us, the safer their journey will be.”

To contact Get Lost, learn more about their work, or donate, you can follow this link.

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