”We drove aimlessly through fields for days.“ After the invasion began, hundreds of Russian National Guard servicemen refused to fight in Ukraine and returned home
Павел Васильев
”We drove aimlessly through fields for days.“ After the invasion began, hundreds of Russian National Guard servicemen refused to fight in Ukraine and returned home
25 July 2022, 15:28

Illustration: Anya Leonova / Mediazona

In the turmoil of the first days of the invasion the Russian army suffered heavy losses. The units of Rosgvardiya—Russian National Guard with its stated mission being maintaining security domestically—were among the first to arrive in the areas surrounding Kyiv and Kharkiv. They were supposed to “guard the streets and crossroads” of captured Ukrainian cities — not to lay siege to them. With their fellow servicemen killed in action, many refused to continue fighting and returned to Russia where they were swiftly dismissed. Mediazona studied dismissal-related lawsuits in courts across Russia and spoke with servicemen from various regions.

Here’s what we learnt:

  • During the first days of the war the Rosgvardiya units were fighting on the front line;
  • They weren’t prepared for the Kyiv and Kharkov offensive, their convoys came under fire and suffered severe losses;
  • As a result many soldiers decided not to continue fighting and returned home; at least, this was the case for soldiers from Krasnodar, Khakasia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and North Ossetia;
  • The highest number of men (about 500) returned to Kabardino-Balkaria, despite being threatened with the status of “war criminal;”
  • One Rosgvardiya general had met with the servicemen and assured them that “no one would consider them deserters or refuseniks.”
  • But when they returned, they were all charged with “gross disciplinary misconduct” and dismissed from service;
  • All over the country objectors are being dismissed under this charge. Some are appealing their dismissal in court with the highest number of lawsuits filed in Kabardino-Balkaria (about 140) and North Ossetia (about 40);
  • Thus far, the courts have rejected every single appeal, and in their formal responses Ukraine is referred to only as “the site of the official mission.”

The original article in Russian was published on the 8th of June, 2022.

Lieutenant Colonel Zaur Ikaev addressed his subordinates at the front warning that “all those who cross the border in the opposite direction will be considered war criminals.” Ikaev is the chief of staff of Unit 3723 in Kabardino-Balkaria, which is part of the National Guard troops.

The speech took place on the 28th of February, on the fifth day of the war, in the north of the Kharkiv oblast of Ukraine. Several hundred Rosgvardiya soldiers on the front line decided to leave Ukraine, where they had already been for four days.

On the very first day of the invasion of Ukraine, the National Guard, unprepared for intensive combat, was essentially thrown into a frontal assault of Kharkiv. Army units were supposed to be the attacking force while the Rosgvardiya units should’ve only moved in the fifth echelon to cordon off the territory that had already been “cleared” of Ukrainian forces. “Then we come in and hold the target area under guard—administrative buildings, the SBU headquarters and police stations—so they don’t get retaken. That was the plan,” one of the fighters explains.

But nothing went according to plan. The Rosgvardiya say that for some reason they ended up in Ukrainian territory before the army moved in. They recount how they travelled in the most part in tarpaulin-covered trucks, as opposed to armoured vehicles, and how the weapons they were issued were not designed for assault in populated areas defended by the Ukrainian military.

“We had Kalashnikovs, RPKs, SVDs plus ammunition and three hand grenades each. There was also an automatic grenade launcher squad with us, they had their own weapons. The most serious thing we had were APCs,” says one National Guardsman who ended up near Kharkiv.

“We’re just not meant for those tasks,” says another.

They claim they never received proper training. During ‘Zaslon-2022’ military drills in the Kursk region (the unit was sent to Ukraine from there), they were trained, for example, to storm a building while apprehending a mob. “The riot police enter the building, scour it, we then surround it, cordon it off, and don’t let anyone in or out,” explains the serviceman. “[It’s basically an exercise] intended to maintain public order, or protect government facilities. But not to storm a town or a village.”

Near Kharkiv, the National Guard came under fire. Confounded by the lack of coordination or clear leadership, they decided a couple of days later to return to the Russian border.

Following this, Lieutenant Colonel Ikaev warned his subordinates: “If you go back to Russia, your weapons will be confiscated at the border, and everyone who returns will, without a doubt, come under investigation by the military prosecutors office. Just so you all understand that everyone who crosses the border will be considered a war criminal,” he continued, repeating his threats. “It’s even possible that the President of the Russian Federation has already issued n decree in this regard. [There is no information indicating the existence of a decree in any way resembling the one described.] Just so everyone understands and fully appreciates the consequences. I’m not saying this to try to make you stay. I’m simply informing you.”

On February the 28th, the reluctant officers had already arrived in Zhuravlevka, a border village in the Belgorod oblast in Russia. Then they went to Zorino, a temporary deployment post in the neighbouring Kursk region. There they surrendered their weapons and on March the 4th set off for their base in the Kabardian village of Zvezdny.

The men insist they did so with the agreement of their leader and that nobody tried to make them stay. Later in court the commanders claim that over those days they attempted to persuade the soldiers to go back, but that they refused to take part in “the fulfilment of the official assignment” and had left the temporary deployment post without permission.

The soldiers say two generals arrived in Zorino to take stock of the situation; at the formation, one of them insisted that there was no danger of persecution.

Around 500 servicemen returned to Zvezdny. Despite all the assurances, they were eventually charged with gross disciplinary misconduct. As a result, throughout March and early April, around 500 servicemen were discharged — all of them had returned from around Kharkiv.

This is not the only known case of widespread refusal by military or National Guard personnel to participate in combat operations in Ukraine, but it is the largest. In addition to soldiers from Kabardino-Balkaria, we know of a significant number of conscientious objectors from Krasnodar, Pskov, Vladikavkaz, Khakassia, and the Crimea. All of them received the same treatment—dismissal from service.

Convoys under fire, driving through fields and returning to Russia

Rosgvardiya servicemen storming Kharkiv essentially faced a choice: either risk losing their lives or return or end up losing their livelihoods. In the first days of the war, they suffered heavy losses; sources spoke of the deaths of members of the Kemerovo SOBR spetsnaz near Kyiv and the Vladimir SOBR near Kharkiv. According to Mediazona’s own calculations, 171 members of the National Guard were known to have been killed by the 15th of July. The largest losses were sustained in the first few days of the invasion.

The National Guard officers were transferred to Ukraine on February the 24th—some from Belarus, some from the border regions of Russia, where since early February they had been taking part in ‘Zaslon-2022’ military drills. This was the case with the ‘Plastun’ special task force company from the Krasnodar region. Twelve fighters, including platoon commander Farid Chitayev, decided the order to send them to Ukraine was illegal, and were sent back to Krasnodar and fired after an internal review.

“The convoy began moving on the 24th of February, from 9AM to 10AM. It consisted of KAMAZ heavy-duty trucks, a Tiger armoured truck, a Ural truck and one APC, moving along the asphalt road that passed through Chernobyl. <…> We were accompanied by other units of the Rosgvardiya, which were stationed in the field with us. There were over a thousand of us,” said one of the soldiers of another OMON detachment, who had arrived for the exercise from Khakassia.

The riot police recalled that they were tasked with “guarding the streets and crossroads of Kyiv.” They carried shields and batons intending to disperse potential demonstrators.

As the local newspaper Novyi Fokus wrote, on that very day, a convoy of OMON riot police, many kilometres long, from Khakassia, the Kemerovo region, and the Krasnoyarsk region was “being destroyed by the Ukrainian troops using heavy weaponry and aircraft ordnance,” and the Rosgvardiya servicemen had to flee because they were not adequately armed. The 11 OMON officers who refused to go on fighting were brought back to Khakassia and then dismissed “in connection with misdemeanours besmirching the honour of the National Guard.”

The Russian Army failed to reach either Kyiv or Kharkiv. Volunteers in Kharkiv later described collecting ammunition left over from National Guard convoys that had been broken up, and using acquired batons and tasers to fight off looters.

About 80 Marine-Corps conscripts from Crimea also refused to fight, wrote Ukrainian online media Grati. The conscripts had been in combat for just a few months and were immediately hit by mortar fire in the Kherson region in southern Ukraine.

In that same Kherson region during the first days of the war convoys of soldiers and National Guardsmen from North Ossetia also came under fire. “We have an expression in the Ossetian language: ‘So loud does the thunder rumble, as if the sky itself were battering the ground’.” That’s what it was like while we were being under attack—in a matter of minutes almost everyone had been taken out. It still scares me to think about it. It then became clear that we had been basically thrown into a meat grinder, and that Russia was not prepared for war. The survivors realised that they had to go back home,” one soldier told Kavkaz.Realii.

Many of them decided to return to Russia, and there they were dismissed for violating the terms of their contracts. It’s difficult to estimate the number of those who returned, but the Vladikavkaz garrison court later received at least 40 lawsuits from military and Rosgvardiya members contesting their dismissal.

“We came under artillery fire on the very first day, the morning of the 24th, in the Kharkiv region. We were heading [toward Kharkiv] through fields, through little towns and villages, and there we were, in the first village we came to, passing the first apartment blocks, shops, people standing on the street… And right then and there, they started shelling us” a fighter from Kabardino-Balkaria, dismissed after returning to Zvezdny, told Mediazona.

The men suffered fatalities and shrapnel wounds, continues another: “After the attack we drove aimlessly through fields for several days. We would stop for the night, though there was one night where we didn’t stop once. We guarded ourselves. Then we started running out of fuel—the drivers complained that there wasn’t enough. Besides, you had to keep the motor in the Ural truck on all the time for the heater to work.

After driving around like this for four days, the men decided to return to Russia. According to them, their commanders agreed: “The leadership said that those who don’t want to carry on with service and combat tasks, are free to leave. Those who stay will be regrouped, an assault squad will be formed, and we will press on. Whoever doesn’t want to, can leave.”

Of the entire unit, only a few dozen remained in Ukraine, some for money, others fearing criminal prosecution or accusations of cowardliness, the soldiers recalled. “When we got near Kharkiv, people started to grow resentful: they said it was just like Chechnya, we were just sitting ducks here, asking to be provided with armoured vehicles so we wouldn’t have to sit under tarpaulin. Because it makes no sense to continue with nothing but tarpaulin—we had already seen what their weapons are capable of,” recalls the soldier we interviewed.

On the 28th of February Lieutenant Colonel Ikaev spoke to the fighters who had decided to return to Russia, threatening them with investigation and the status of ‘war criminal’. The Rosgvardiya first arrived at Zhuravlevka near Belgorod and then went to Zorino near Kursk (where, at the base for the ‘Zaslon-2022’ exercise, the soldiers’ weapons were confiscated), on the 4th of March they left for their permanent base in the settlement of Zvezdny in Kabardino-Balkaria.

Apparently, before any of this, a high-ranking general of the National Guard, presumably Mikhail Romanov, met with the soldiers in Zorino and assured them they would suffer no consequences for their decision.

“And as for what happened, what you witnessed, I repeat, most people in their entire lives will never have to go through something like that. As of today, the director of the National Guard [Viktor Zolotov], the commander of the troops, wants to reiterate: no one considers you deserters, no one considers you objectors, I don’t know who’s been saying that,” said the general, adding that “there are limits to what is necessary to fulfil your duty.” (Mediazona has a video of his speech).

One of the National Guard fighters even decided to return to the combat zone, on the condition that his unit would be provided with standard armoured vehicles, recalls one of the men: “To which the deputy district engineer, I think, answered: no, we can’t provide armoured vehicles. You have your own equipment, we’ll repair it and use it. Others wanted to go back, but they lost confidence in the command. They thought that now they would regroup and let them return under different commanders. No one was taken back. They told us: no, you’re not needed there. The regiment commander does not want you there. Now they’re saying someone volunteered to go back, but I’m not sure who through.”

140 National Guardsmen in garrison courts

About 500 returning National Guardsmen were discharged in Zvezdny for “refusing to participate in the official mission.” The dismissal was framed as “disciplinary action in the form of early dismissal from military service due to the soldier’s failure to fulfil the terms of his contract.” The reason given for this “gross disciplinary misconduct,” according to command, was “a lack of willpower and moral strength.”

At this time, some of the servicemen, according Mediazona’s interviewees, were already planning to leave the service due to health issues. But now they are no longer able to do so: “Many people were going to leave for health reasons, but all of us were dismissed with the same charge, for the same misdemeanour.”

At least 140 discharged men decided to appeal the decision in court: 115 members of the National Guard have put together a class action lawsuit, and another 25 people have filed claims individually. They insist that they did not refuse to fight—they simply asked the command to provide them with proper combat support and pointed out their lack of the skills necessary for assault missions. Moreover, the list of responsibilities of the National Guard includes just about everything short of combat operations on the territory of another state. This requires a separate decree from Commander-in-Chief Vladimir Putin, approved by the Federation Council. But such a decree does not exist.

In addition, the fighters insist that they did not violate the orders of their commanders when they returned from Ukraine. “We came back, as it turns out, on the fifth day of the invasion, the 28th. We arrived in Zorino. We handed over our weapons, ammunition—everything accompanied by our signatures, no one abandoned their weapons, no one ran away without permission. We received our salaries,” says one member of the National Guard.

No one made them stay at the base in Zorino either: “There was no order for us to remain there. If there had been an order, nobody would have left. On the contrary, the regiment deputy commander for the rear suggested we go back to Kabardino-Balkaria: “If you want to leave by train, you’ll have to wait for some time. If you don’t want to wait, then fix up a bus trip and go like that. We did, paid five thousand rubles out of our own pockets, and left. No one tried to make us stay, no one forbade us from leaving.”

“While the collective lawsuit was being considered, witnesses from among the unit commanders stated that nobody gave us permission to leave. And that the soldiers themselves refused to fulfil the ‘official mission’ during their assignment ‘outside the permanent place of deployment of the military unit 3723’.” Ukraine is never mentioned directly in the court ruling—it is referred to only as “the location of the official assignment.”

“Gross Disciplinary Misconduct” across the country

It appears that the policy by which the National Guard soldiers from Kabardino-Balkaria were dismissed is now the standard one. The Military Ombudsman online community, which advises Russian servicemen, published a telegram from the commander of the Airborne forces: essentially an instruction on how to deal with those who want to return. Severe disciplinary penalties for refusal to fight are mentioned as grounds to break a contract.

It seems military servicemen and National Guardsmen of Khakasia, Krasnodar, Pskov and Vladikavkaz were dismissed under similar pretexts. In Vladikavkaz, the dismissed servicemen also filed a class action lawsuit: the case file listed 30 plaintiffs, with several more individual lawsuits under consideration. The Krasnodar OMON riot squad ‘Plastun’ also applied to the court collectively, but by the first court session it became clear that 9 out of 12 of them had withdrawn their claims. The case is still under review; as in the case of other lawsuits for dismissal for refusal to fight, the trial is being held behind closed doors. Apparently, individual members of the Khakassia OMON are also appealing their dismissals.

According to Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora human rights group, cases of refusals to fight is much more geographically widespread: the military and the National Guard sought help from human rights activists in at least 17 cities. In addition to the regions mentioned above, these include Cherkessk, Samara, the Moscow oblast, Veliky Novgorod, Simferopol, Novocherkassk, Stavropol, Pskov, Orenburg, Ulan-Ude, St. Petersburg, and Smolensk.

However, it would be incorrect to judge the number of dismissals for refusing to fight in Ukraine by the number of lawsuits in the courts; not everyone appeals against their dismissals. For example, of the five hundred people dismissed in the Kabardino-Balkaria, just 140 of them have gone to court. Some do not see the point, some leave the service of their own accord, and some are simply glad to have their contracts terminated.

Such is the case for Maxim Kalugin, as mentioned in another Mediazona report. Kalugin says he is opposed to the war in Ukraine, and his relatives and former fellow soldiers do not blame him for refusing to fight. He served in the army for three years, but now wants to do something more interesting: he got a job as a bartender and is studying to become a game developer.

Kalugin was also fired for “gross disciplinary misconduct.” When picking up his military ID card, he discovered that the document was stamped with the words: “Prone to betrayal, lying and deceit. Refused to participate in a special military operation on the territory of the LPR, DPR and Ukraine in 2022.” And this has happened elsewhere.

The young man says that some of his fellow soldiers who returned from Ukraine with injuries refused to go back a second time, but continue nonetheless to serve: “I asked a friend who had been there, and they’re not firing him for refusing to go a second time.”

Mediazona discovered about 300 cases dating since February the 24th in garrison courts across Russia in which servicemen had challenged their dismissal, most of them probably unrelated to the war. Many, for example, were dismissed for drunkenness during tours of duty; others told Mediazona that personal conflicts in the service were behind their dismissals.

In one region, several contract servicemen from an aviation unit were discharged due to a small bribe paid to a physical training instructor in order to pass standard fitness tests. One of them told Mediazona that the charges were dropped, and now he is appealing his dismissal from one unit and is considering whether to transfer to another.

“It’s not even the war that scares me anymore. What does scare me is that I have relatives there in Ukraine. The way they have turned against us, specifically against our family. Family, to put it bluntly, no longer means anything,” the young man admits. He talks about his classmate who immediately signed a contract instead of doing military service. At the beginning of the war this friend refused to go to Ukraine, was dismissed and transferred back to regular service.

Lawyer Maxim Grebenyuk from the Military Ombudsman community says that the number of appeals from dismissed servicemen already exceeds several hundred. “There are two categories. There are those who are asked to participate in the ‘special military operation’ while at their permanent deployment point in Russia—they refuse on the spot. Then there are those who are already in the thick of the ‘special military operation’ and refuse to continue,” Grebenyuk explains. The latter, as a rule, are discharged when they return to their unit.

It isn’t just the privates refusing to fight, the officers are too. One of them, Ruslan Grigoriev, is serving in north-western Russia. Grigoriev told Mediazona that he was dismissed after he unequivocally refused to go to Ukraine. He said that he had planned to leave the service eventually anyway, but was waiting for the end of his contract.

The review board ruled unanimously that the officer had disobeyed orders. “I know there were at least a few people on my side,” he says. “but all the same, their votes wouldn’t have made any difference. I talked to them, they said they didn’t know what to do. I said: if everyone is against me, vote [against me] too. Because, well, you don’t have to fall on your sword.” Grigoryev recalls standing in front of the door to the office where the commission members were sitting, and hearing the commander demanding everyone vote for his dismissal, saying otherwise there’d be problems from the FSB.

While Grigoriev disputes the commission’s decision in court, he continues to serve in the same unit because the order to dismiss him from the military district has not yet been formalised. The unit management accepted his departure, and relations with his colleagues did not change.

“We talk like normal,” says the officer. “I share [my thoughts] with them, and no one treats me any differently. I have people I talk to as if nothing has changed. I talk to my supervisors, too, like nothing ever happened. There are individual people who basically think I’m a traitor, but there aren’t very many of them.”

Pro-Kremlin news organisations and telegraph channels refer to discharged servicemen as ‘deserters’ and ‘cowards’, without going into the circumstances behind their refusal to fight. In Ingushetia, for example, anonymous channels are harassing Muslim Mutsolgov, a member of the Rosgvardiya who refused to go to Ukraine. Despite the fact that, according to his relatives, he had left the exercises before the invasion to visit his sick father, he was dismissed in Ingushetia for refusing to fight. Now Mutsolgov is contesting this decision in court.

In Vladikavkaz, the court partially satisfied the claims of 30 servicemen. The discharge order was found to be lawful, but the dismissed soldiers will be given their clothing allowances or compensation for it—which was not provided during their service.

“The court dismissed the class action lawsuit demanding recognition of actions and decisions made by military officials, connected with disciplinary responsibility, dismissal from military service and exclusion from the military unit personnel list,” reads the reply to the inquiry made by Kavkazsky Uzel.

So far, the National Guardsmen from Zvezdny have not even been given their “clothing allowance upon exclusion from the military.” The court ruled that the dismissal was completely legal. Today, some of the servicemen with lawsuits say they might go back to Ukraine.

“A lot of people are ready to go back, despite all this,” notes one of the discharged fighters. “Maybe all of them. These are men who are willing to go back and carry out their orders.”

Editor: Egor Skovoroda

Translation: Lily Samarine

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