When soldiers say no. Hundreds of Russian servicemen face trial in defiance of Ukraine deployment, Mediazona study reveals
Анна Павлова
When soldiers say no. Hundreds of Russian servicemen face trial in defiance of Ukraine deployment, Mediazona study reveals
11 April 2023, 8:41

Illustration: Zh. A. / Mediazona

Russian military courts have processed over 700 criminal cases against servicemen since the beginning of mobilisation in September 2022, with charges brought under newly toughened articles. Both contract soldiers and conscripts are going AWOL, either by directly refusing orders to deploy to Ukraine or deserting from the front lines. Mediazona investigates the trials of these military conscientious objectors, often called “the five-hundredths,” examining the sentences they receive and why suspended sentences can be problematic in these cases.

Key findings:

  • By 3 April 2023, Russian garrison courts have received 708 cases launched under criminal articles that have been toughened after the start of mobilisation, including unauthorized abandonment of a place of service, disobedience of orders, and desertion. Sentences have been passed in 360 cases.
  • The number of new cases is increasing monthly, with March setting a new record.
  • The most common charge is unauthorized abandonment, accounting for 629 cases. In over half of these cases, the soldier was absent for more than a month.
  • Show trials for objectors and deserters are used to intimidate other soldiers, with detentions occurring in front of their units, verdicts announced in military units, and judges giving “prophylactic talks.”
  • Conversely, such cases are hidden from the public: verdicts are often not published, and sentences and statistics are withheld under the pretext of military secrecy.
  • Many service members—over a third of the known sentences under the AWOL article—receive suspended sentences, which allows them to be sent back to the front.
  • Those who refuse to go to war without deserting their units are charged with disobeying orders; the number of such defendants is growing (25 cases are currently in the courts).
  • Disobeying orders might be a preferable option for conscientious objectors, as the penalties are lower than for other mobilisation-related charges.

“Private Selivanov, report to me!” orders an officer. Soldiers stand in formation before him.

A young man steps out from the ranks. As the soldier approaches the commander, another man takes his place, introducing himself as a military investigator. He announces that on November 16, a case was initiated against conscript Alexei Selivanov under Part 2.1, Article 332 of the Criminal Code, which penalises failure to comply with orders “during armed conflict” or “refusal to participate in military or combat operations.” The investigator quietly explains that the soldier will now be detained, asking a military police officer to escort him to the department.

“Make the arrest!” shouts the officer, and armed police officers approach the hesitant Selivanov. They forcefully twist his arms and lead him through the ranks to a vehicle, where they stretch him out, pushing his legs apart, search him, handcuff him, and place him in a police van.

Another soldier, Private Yuri Degtyaryov, is called out from the ranks. The process is repeated, except the police acts softer. His wife, Tatyana Degtaryova, later said that her husband had indeed refused to go to “the frontline” after having “just returned” from there. Degtyaryov was conscripted on September 22, had no combat experience, but found himself on the frontline in the Luhansk region of Ukraine after just two weeks—essentially unprepared. Later, his wife said, when Yuri and other soldiers were transported to the Belgorod region, he refused to “be cannon fodder again” despite intimidation.

In December, the Kursk garrison military court sentenced both conscripts to three years of imprisonment. The charge was aggravated, qualifying their refusal to fight as group non-compliance with orders.

Garrison courts across Russia are examining hundreds of cases of refusal to fight “during mobilisation,” and each month, the number of defendants grows.

Mediazona studied who and how they are being tried under articles tightened after September 21, 2022: non-compliance with orders, unauthorised abandonment of units, desertion, assault on a commander, and others.

We found that such trials are often exemplary for soldiers while simultaneously hidden from civilians. Frequently, around 40% of known sentences result in a suspended sentence, putting soldiers at risk of being sent back to the front. The most common charge is unauthorised abandonment of units, but a more advantageous strategy for objectors is open non-compliance with orders before being sent to Ukraine.

Show trials to intimidate other servicemen

Detaining soldiers in front of their ranks is not an isolated occurrence. Criminal cases and trials for those refusing to fight are designed to be as demonstrative as possible for their fellow servicemen, with verdicts often announced directly in military units (sometimes the entire trial takes place there).

From court press releases, we learn that fellow soldiers are called to attend hearings “for preventive purposes,” and judges later hold “prophylactic talks” with military personnel, explaining the consequences of committing “crimes during partial mobilisation.”

The Krasnoyarsk military court press office even published a photo of such a trial: the judge, prosecutors, and the accused stand on stage with their faces blurred, while around 50 servicemen face away from the camera in the audience. In Tula, Central Russia, “the unit’s command staff and over 300 conscripted servicemen were present during the verdict announcement,” while in Yekaterinburg in the Urals and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, on Sakhalin island, soldiers were lectured about “criminal liability for committing crimes against military service” after verdicts were announced.

“Officers from each subdivision, some contract soldiers, and conscripts gather. Tables are arranged, a judge arrives in robes. It’s all very tedious, and then: ‘Do you understand?’ ‘Yes, we understand, Your Honour.’ Of course, this is for propaganda purposes. Naturally, the command will use this later,” says Senior Lieutenant Dmitry Vasilets, who is also accused of disobeying orders for refusing to participate in military operations.

The chairman of the garrison court in Kursk, discussing the case of Degtyaryov and Selivanov with Mediazona, noted that information about criminal cases against soldiers is “very delicate,” so they are “not particularly publicized,” while simultaneously stressing that the hearings were open and “in the presence of personnel.”

Ivan Mirny, a lawyer with the “Call to Conscience” coalition, confirms that courts are indeed closed “to external audiences,” but actively disseminate information about them within the army.

“They send telegrams to unit commanders: so-and-so was sentenced to 5 years in prison for unauthorised abandonment of a unit for more than 10 days during mobilisation, please inform personnel,” says the lawyer. “This is certainly used for intimidation. These verdicts are posted on notice boards in military units and widely discussed. But for everyone else, presumably to avoid discussing this repression and to hide their own discipline problems in the army, they don’t publish this.”

708 cases

Military courts have received 708 cases against conscientious objectors, with the number increasing since the summer, mostly after mobilisation was announced.

Russian soldiers, both mobilised and contractors, are fleeing their units or refusing to obey orders to deploy to the frontlines, often referred to as “the five-hundredths” in the army.

In late September, the military section of the Criminal Code was amended to include new offences committed during mobilisation or combat, with stricter sentences, such as doubling the maximum punishment for leaving a unit without authorisation from five to ten years.

Trials under new articles began in November, and by April 3. 708 cases were submitted to military courts across the country, with verdicts reached in 360 cases, although obtaining case details and specific court-imposed punishments is quite difficult.

Secret trials for objectors

Many military courts close trials, citing a Ministry of Defence directive on secrecy. For example, in Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg, our reporters were denied attendance under this pretext.

Data on the number of people convicted or acquitted of crimes against military service is no longer published in Russian Supreme Court statistics, explained by the Ministry of Defence and FSB orders to classify such information.

Only 25 out of 360 military court sentences were made publicly available. In 44 cases, sentence durations were mentioned in court press releases, mostly involving self-withdrawal from service. Courts may publish sentence texts after they become final, though not certain as they are “classified.”

“The crime he committed is resonant in light of current events,” said Murmansk garrison court judge Vitaly Zagorsky. “To prevent information leaks, so that later on, some channel in, excuse me, Pindosia, doesn’t discuss what these individuals do here, I closed the trial, and that’s it.”

Even defence lawyers of convicted military personnel are often reluctant to disclose punishment terms, citing non-disclosure requirements.

Ivan Mirny from “Call to Conscience” adds that the military personnel themselves often don’t want publicity: “Many have court-appointed lawyers who say they should keep quiet and express readiness to go to war. And, of course, they don’t want any publicity.”

Even in the rare published verdicts, the war is barely mentioned, and the case circumstances are described very briefly. For instance, Abakan garrison military court likely had any mention of war simply removed. Maadyr Ondar left the “field encampment” in the summer, and on October 6, he came to the military commissariat on his own; as a result, the court spared him with a suspended sentence. The sentence states that Ondar “intends to continue military service and is ready to participate again .” – instead of completing the phrase, there’s a space and a period. Convicted individuals do indeed return to the front, which we discuss in more detail in another chapter.

Screenshot of a sentence from Baltiysky garrison military court’s website, most of the information is ommited (<other data>)

Exceptions are rare. For example, the sentence for Ruslan Akhmetov states that he participated in a “special military operation,” was wounded, and after treatment did not return to his unit in Buryatia—instead, he stayed home to care for his sick father. Akhmetov voluntarily came to the Investigative Committee after the start of mobilisation.

In the end, he was convicted in Omsk on two counts of abandonment of his unit—this is the most common charge in mobilisation-related criminal cases.

Most objectors are simply leaving their units

Most conscientious objectors are prosecuted for self-withdrawal from service. Of the 708 cases examined by Mediazona, 629 were investigated under Article 337 of the Criminal Code, the unauthorized abandonment of a place of service.

Soldiers then typically hide at their relatives’ or friends’ homes, but some exceptions, like Vitaly Ryazanov, have been found living in bars after deserting their unit (he was drinking alcohol non-stop for 12 days and slept on the floor).

Soldiers’ motives for fleeing their units are rarely disclosed on court websites, but information can sometimes be obtained indirectly from lawyers or press secretaries.

Some soldiers, like Salavat Mirasov, left their units to avoid participating in a “special military operation,” while others, like Dmitry Yakovlev, cited family problems as their reason for leaving.

Junior Sergeant Ivan Medvedev, who was wounded in the chest during the war and needed to care for his disabled guardian, was charged after leaving his unit in the Moscow region when his requests for leave were ignored.

A lawyer who asked to remain anonymous is representing a soldier who received a one-year suspended sentence for two days of absence. He notes that soldiers are often driven by “plain foolishness,” such as visiting a girlfriend or going on a binge without considering the consequences. In such cases, punishment is unlikely to be severe.

If a soldier leaves their unit specifically to avoid deployment to the front and is straightforward about this in court, they will likely face “real imprisonment,” according to this lawyer.

He adds that courts currently lack a unified legal approach, as the practice is still being discussed.

Draft evader Dmitry Vasilets says there are now many deserters in his Murmansk unit, significantly more than in peacetime, likely due to men’s concern for their lives.

In peacetime, there were only a few “Sochi-goers,” but now there are several dozen, Vasilets explains.

Punishments are harsher but often suspended, allowing continued service

Punishments are harsher but often suspended, allowing soldiers to be sent back to the front. Penalties for going AWOL during mobilisation have been significantly toughened. In half of the studied cases under Article 337, military personnel are charged with the most severe, fifth part—343 out of 661 cases—indicating they didn’t report for duty for over a month.

Mediazona determined the imposed penalties in 86 cases of voluntary abandonment of units (225 convictions in total). The most severe sentences were up to seven years of imprisonment (both given by a Kamchatka court). Suspended sentences are common—31 instances of soldiers receiving them for going AWOL are known to Mediazona.

“It all depends on how long the person was absent,” suggests lawyer Maxim Grebenyuk. “If it’s just a short while, they may get a suspended sentence. But if it’s the fifth part—over a month—actual imprisonment is usually assigned.”

However, our data shows that even those charged under the gravest part of Article 337 often receive suspended sentences. The harshest suspended terms are assigned by the Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk Garrison Military Court: six to eight years. The longest suspended sentence—eight years—was given to draftee Vladimir Zaytsev, who was absent from his unit for exactly a month and voluntarily reported to the military investigation department.

The press release clarifies that the court “took into account mitigating circumstances.” While sentencing, the court considered that Zaytsev expressed his desire to continue military service and participate in combat. Suspended sentences are a poor outcome for those who go AWOL to avoid war. Putin’s decree on mobilisation not only made military contracts indefinite but also left only three grounds for dismissal: being deemed unfit for service, reaching the age limit, or being sentenced to imprisonment. As a result, soldiers who receive suspended sentences are sent back to the front.

A 20-year-old paratrooper from Pskov, Nikolai Kartashev, was sentenced in late December 2022 for going AWOL—he left the front in the summer to avoid further participation in combat. A month after the verdict, he found himself in Ukraine and was captured.

“He said, ‘I’m a prisoner, they treat me well, don’t worry.’ And on the phone, they said they’d exchange him,” the soldier’s mother told Mediazona. “I asked, ‘Son, how did this happen?’ A voice said, ‘The others are dead, it’s good that he’s alive’.”

Disobeying orders

When soldiers directly refuse to go to war, their cases are clear-cut instances of disobeying an order under Article 322 of the Criminal Code. After the invasion of Ukraine, many soldiers began writing reports to refuse participation in the war. Some were initially sent home, but as the situation worsened, their requests were ignored, and some faced imprisonment.

Since the start of the mobilisation, criminal cases for disobeying orders have increased, with harsher penalties enacted. Mediazona found 30 such cases in military courts, with ten verdicts issued so far (convicting 16 people). Sentences range from 1 year and 8 months to 4 years of real prison time.

In one case, brothers Vladimir and Yegor Kotov were stationed in the occupied part of the Kherson region and refused to go to the front lines, fearing for their lives. They were sentenced to 3 years 6 months and 3 years and 4 months in prison, respectively.

In a mass trial in Novocherkassk, five soldiers were charged with collective disobedience of an order. The circumstances of the case remain unknown, but the defendants received sentences ranging from 3.5 to 4 years in prison.

Senior Lieutenant who “embraced the philosophy of Buddhism.” The case of Dmitry Vasilets

Dmitry Vasilets became the first known defendant in a case of failure to comply with orders. The 27-year-old military officer serves as the deputy commander of a company for military-political work in the small village of Pechenga in the Murmansk region. His five-year contract with the army was due to end in March 2023, but he tried to resign last summer, immediately after returning from Ukraine, where he had fought for almost five months.

“We were on the Kharkiv front. I didn’t take part in direct combat. Two days before it began, I was assigned to the army headquarters, where I mainly dealt with paperwork,” he recalls. The headquarters were located near the front line, so they were also occasionally under fire.

There were already many military personnel who had decided to refuse to participate in the fighting in Ukraine, says Vasilets. They were not immediately sent back to Russia, they were talked to, and many were eventually convinced to stay. He did not think about refusal at that time, feeling responsible for his subordinates. At first, he even felt “some anger” towards the refusers and did not understand them, Vasilets admits, but later changed his mind.

In July, the officer unexpectedly received the Medal of Suvorov for courage in combat and a 15-day leave. Vasilets decided to visit the relatives of two of his fallen comrades in Ulan-Ude and Chita. He said that during the trip to Buryatia to see the parents of his deceased comrade, he “embraced Buddhism,” which he had been interested in for a long time, and “was familiar with the laws of karma”: “Especially after the special military operation, I finally realized that we reap what we sow.”

He decided not to return to the war. “I arrived in Pechenga and on the first working day went straight to the deputy commander. He said, ‘Either you go or you resign.’ I said I would not go back and would be resigning,” Vasilets recalls.

In August, he wrote a report refusing to follow the order and went on leave for 140 days. Vasilets remembers that he was preparing to leave, but then a mobilisation was announced.

The Senior Lieutenant was called back to the unit, where, together with other officers, they were lined up and intimidated: either they all return to the front, or they will end up in prison. According to Vasilets, in their unit, the objectors were threatened with long prison sentences.

Vasilets confirmed his refusal again, and on October 19, a criminal case was filed against him. According to the military officer, the order to send him to war was ultimately issued four times, including after the criminal case was filed. The last time, in January, the command recorded him on camera: “Now we have this practice, camera recordings. Probably to make it easier to prove a person’s guilt, so that it can be seen in court.”

On April 7, Dmitry Vasilets was sentenced to 2 years and 5 months in a minimum security prison. This made him the first publicly known person to be convicted during the war under the part 2.1, article 332 of the Criminal Code—“disobeying orders.”


Russian authorities have increased penalties for desertion amid the recent mobilisation effort.

Fourteen cases of desertion have been brought to court so far, with three verdicts rendered. Desertion differs from absence in that it involves an intention to avoid military service for a period of time or permanently. Proof of intent is more difficult to establish than proof of absence, and desertion cases are less common.

In one case, eight conscripts from Kaliningrad who fled to the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic were accused of desertion. According to soldiers, they lacked proper leadership, and one officer drank heavily and started fights. Mobilised soldiers were left to fend for themselves, with little food available. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Zavatsky met with them only once and threatened to shoot and bury any soldiers who dishonored the unit.

Eight conscripts decided to return home to save their lives upon learning they would be sent to the front. They had to cross minefields to reach Russia. As a result, the conscripts were charged with desertion (part 3 of article 338 of the Criminal Code). They five to fifteen years of imprisonment.

Assaulting a commander

Another article that has been frequently used against disgruntled soldiers is the use of violence against a commander during mobilisation (part 3 of article 334 of the Criminal Code).

The most famous case was that of 40-year-old conscript Alexander Leshkov, who struck Lieutenant Colonel Denis Mazanov during an argument at the “Patriot” training center near Moscow. Leshkov accused the leadership of sabotaging the “orders of the commander-in-chief” and threatened to break the limbs of anyone who got in his way.

The incident was caught on video and quickly spread online. Leshkov was subsequently arrested and charged with two crimes: violence against a superior officer during mobilisation and insult of an officer. In January, he was sentenced to five and a half years in prison, but the prosecution considered the verdict too lenient, and it was increased to 7 years in February.

There have been 26 such cases in military courts, and in two instances, three people are being simultaneously charged with attacking a commander. Eleven cases have already resulted in convictions, including that of conscript Stanislav Rybin, who was sentenced to six years in prison for attacking an officer and threatening to kill him. Rybin was mobilised from a small village in Omsk region and allegedly threatened the officer with a knife during an argument. Defense lawyers claim that soldiers are often frustrated with the lack of proper training and leadership and that this frustration can lead to violence.

Writing: Anna Pavlova

Data: Mediazona Data Department, Anna Pavlova

Infographics: Mediazona Data Department

Editor: Egor Skovoroda

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