Art: Kostya Volkov / Mediazona
Mediazona continues to track how Russian authorities prosecute military personnel who are unwilling to participate in the war with Ukraine. In the first half of 2023, military courts received 2,076 cases related to unauthorized absence from units (Article 337 of the Criminal Code). That’s twice as much as the total for 2022 and three times more than the pre-war year of 2021. In recent months, most defendants in these cases are mobilised soldiers.
An extraordinary rise in the number of cases related to Russian soldiers being absent without official leave (AWOL) began in March 2023, according to data obtained by Mediazona from the websites of military courts.
These cases were initiated after the start of mobilisation, followed by several months of investigation. By June, Russian military courts were passing 100 sentences per week under Article 337 of the Criminal Code.
The number of other cases categorised as crimes against military service remained more or less the same.
Since October 2022, going absent without leave has been prosecuted as a crime committed during the period of mobilisation, which enabled harsher punishments for these and other “military” offenses.
When courts started publishing spring convictions, it became clear that the major category of servicemen who go AWOL are mobilised soldiers.
In order to tell who the convict is, we examined all 330 texts of sentences under the “mobilisation version” Art. 337 that were published by 2023.
After being mobilised, a soldier signs a contract with the Ministry of Defence. So for the courts, all of the convicts are contract soldiers. But in many cases the text of the sentence specifies that the accused, despite signing a contract, was drafted in the autumn of 2022 during mobilisation. We consider these to be mobilised soldiers.
Conscripts are barely mentioned in AWOL cases. From the first days of the war, the Ministry of Defence announced that they cannot be sent to the front lines. That’s why the sentences sometimes state that a soldier was conscripted, but then “voluntarily” signed a contract (sometimes, reports from unit commanders are quotes, that stress this voluntariness). And only after that the soldier decided to flee in order not to participate in the war with Ukraine. In cases like these, we considered a soldier to be a conscript if he signed the contract after 24 February 2022.
The courts don’t publish the texts of all sentences. Usually, the documents appear on courts’ websites weeks or even months after the verdict is carried out. For example, only half of the texts for the autumn-2022 sentences are available, and only a third for March of 2023.
In May, Mediazona already wrote about a significant increase in the number of AWOL cases. We noticed then that the majority of soldiers who left their units received suspended sentences. It allowed to send them straight back to war. Moreover, they became more dependent on their commanding officers who could reports a subordinate at any moment—and his suspended sentence would turn into an actual prison term.
Suspended sentences are still carried out in over half of the cases. But we now see that mobilised soldiers receive them less frequently than contractors. So in the end, the courts bring less of them back to the front lines.
Editors: Maxim Litavrin, Yegor Skovoroda
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