A soldier’s last resort. Russian AWOL figures soar, surpassing full‑year tally within first four months of 2023
Максим Литаврин
A soldier’s last resort. Russian AWOL figures soar, surpassing full‑year tally within first four months of 2023
12 May 2023, 21:14

Art by Boris Khmelny / Mediazona

Mediazona continues to monitor trials against Russians resistant to participating in the Ukraine war. Official data reveals a significant increase in soldiers going absent without leave (AWOL) in the first four months of 2023. Over one thousand AWOL cases (Art. 337 of the Criminal Code) went to military courts, surpassing the total number recorded for all of 2022. The majority of these sentences are suspended, thereby enabling the command to send violating soldiers back to the front lines.

From January through the first week of May, Russian military courts registered 1,053 AWOL cases, marking a significant surge compared to the 1,001 cases documented in the entirety of the previous year. We compiled and analyzed the data from the websites of garrison courts.

The majority of the 2023 AWOL cases (992) were initiated post-September, following the announcement of a “partial” mobilisastion and the introduction of harsher punishments for numerous new military offenses.

These soldiers, often referred to as “Sochi-goers”—a euphemism deriving from the Russian acronym for AWOL (SOCH) and the name of the popular resort city of Sochi—experienced a noticeable uptick in cases against them starting mid-2022, even prior to the enforcement of the stricter penalties. Consequently, by the end of 2022, AWOL cases had risen by 63% compared to 2021.

The crime of “Unauthorized Abandonment of a Military Unit or a Place of Military Service” is just one of 22 articles under the crimes against military service section of the Russian Criminal Code, which also includes “Failure to Execute an Order,” “Desertion,” and “Violent Actions Against a Superior,” among others.

Data from the Russian Supreme Court indicates that just over a thousand individuals were sentenced in such cases in 2021, with the figure rising to under 1.4 thousand in 2022. Garrison courts received about a hundred cases of crimes against military service monthly until the summer of 2022. By the spring of 2023, the number had quadrupled to 441 in March and 435 in April, with AWOL cases making up 80% of these.

The majority of AWOL sentences are suspended. Judges frequently state in their rulings that the accused is spared incarceration to facilitate their redeployment.

The mobilisation decree that President Vladimir Putin signed on September 21, 2022, categorically forbids the discharge of convicted soldiers from service if their sentences are suspended. This means that they continue to serve.

Of the 169 AWOL sentences during mobilisation that Mediazona was able to obtain, almost half (84) were suspended. Approximately 40 sentences were handed down in the most severe AWOL cases (absences for over a month), which carry penalties of five to ten years in prison. This suggests that soldiers are sent to the front lines with substantial suspended sentences, risking actual prison time in case of any offense or refusal to fight.

Story: Maxim Litavrin

Data and Infographics: Mediazona Data Department

Editor: Egor Skovoroda

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