Art: Anna Makarova / Mediazona
Exactly one year ago, Vladimir Putin announced a “partial” mobilisation in Russia. This decree not only summoned hundreds of thousands of men to war in Ukraine but also led to amendments in the Criminal Code. Anticipating a large number of refusals, the State Duma immediately tightened most of the articles of the Criminal Code concerning crimes related to military service. Since September 2022, avoiding deployment to the front became considerably more challenging.
Mediazona reviewed the annual court statistics on such cases to determine which strategies of evasion proved most successful.
Ignoring the draft notice during the 2022 mobilisation was not considered a crime, and no one was convicted for it.
The only attempt to apply Article 328 of the Criminal Code (evasion of military service) against a would-be mobilised soldier failed. Maxim Moiseev, a 32-year-old resident of the Penza region, refused to accept the draft notice and report to the military recruitment office. He was detained under Article 328 of the Criminal Code and placed in a detention centre for two days. However, the prosecutor’s office soon declared the decision to initiate this case illegal, and the head of the regional investigative committee faced disciplinary action.
The case was dismissed because Article 328 of the Criminal Code refers to evasion from conscription, not mobilisation. The State Duma promised to close this loophole. Last November, Andrey Kartapolov, head of the State Duma’s Defence Committee, proposed expanding this article to punish evasion from mobilisation with a prison term of up to five years.
In August 2023, the government gave a positive review of this bill, but since then, it has remained stagnant. As of the publication date of this article, on the anniversary of the mobilisation, failing to appear for a conscription notice still doesn’t lead to serious repercussions.
For those already in the army uniform, whether they’re under contract or called up for mobilisation, specific provisions of the Criminal Code come into play. Over the last year, the most frequently invoked has been the article on unauthorised absence from the unit (Article 337 of the Criminal Code).
In the year following Putin’s decree, the courts were inundated with over 3,000 AWOL cases, accentuated by the grave circumstance of it being committed during the mobilisation. A significant surge in such cases was observed from March 2023, with the pinnacle reached in July when 500 cases were filed in just that single month.
From late May, garrison military courts have been delivering about a hundred verdicts on AWOL cases each week.
A look at the cases, particularly those with published decisions (513 cases in total), offers clarity on the profile of the accused. A significant 58% (298 verdicts) concern those summoned to service by Putin’s decree. Another 39% (200 verdicts) were already contract soldiers when the war began. The remaining 15 cases involve conscripts who opted for a contract while undergoing their service term.
Over half of all the sentences are suspended. As previously reported by Mediazona, judges often opt for this decision to ensure the convicted man can be dispatched back to the frontlines. In some instances, this commitment by the defendant is explicitly stated in the verdict. Moreover, a suspended sentence enables military superiors to maintain a tighter rein on their personnel, since any breach could readily convert the sentence into actual incarceration.
While desertion remains the most cited charge in the annals of military courts, 2023 witnessed the emergence of over two hundred cases related to the failure to execute orders (Article 332 of the Criminal Code).
Prior to the war, this provision was scarcely used. For instance, throughout 2021, not a single case under this article made its way to court. However, after the announcement of mobilisation, Article 332, along with other articles concerning offences against military service, was tightened, now encompassing stringent clauses addressing “offences committed during the period of mobilisation/martial law.”
Yet, even in its revised form, the provision concerning the failure to execute orders remains relatively lenient, carrying a maximum sentence of just three years. Nearly all those convicted under this article receive a two-year term in a penal colony-settlement—the mildest form of incarceration where the convicted can occasionally return home.
Refusal to be dispatched to the frontline qualifies as “disobeying orders.” Take, for example, the case of Andrei Timin from Khabarovsk. The 23-year-old contract soldier decided to resign even before the mobilisation was announced. On September 19, 2022, Andrei’s command issued an order for his release. Yet, a month later, this order was rescinded, and the young man was reinstated in service. By mid-February 2023, Timin was informed of his impending deployment to the frontlines as part of an assault group.
He declined, considering himself no longer enlisted and having no desire to participate in the war. Consequently, a case under Article 332 was initiated against him, and by August 2023, he was sentenced to 2.5 years in a penal colony-settlement.
Judging by court statistics, an outright refusal to partake in the war, as opposed to desertion, seems to be more prevalent in Russia’s border regions: Kamchatka, Primorye, Kaliningrad, and the Murmansk region. The frontline regions of Rostov and Kuban also rank prominently in this list.
By March 2023, the courts began hearing the first cases under the most severe provision reserved for those who refuse service—desertion, which implies fleeing from duty not temporarily but permanently.
Desertion committed after the announcement of mobilisation is categorised as an especially grave offence. This entails that the defendant will be dispatched to a high-security penal colony, regardless of the duration of the sentence.
Among the harshest known verdicts was the one meted out to contract soldier Maxim Kochetkov from the Sakhalin region. In September 2023, he was sentenced to 13 years in a high-security colony. This combined the sentence for desertion (9 years of imprisonment) with a previously issued suspended sentence related to unauthorised absence from his unit.
Prior to his arrest, Kochetkov, along with at least 16 other servicemen, was confined in a detention camp for those refusing service. This camp was situated on the grounds of the now-defunct Colony No. 19, near the city of Perevalsk in the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR).
Two particular categories of criminal cases against military service have been scarcely invoked: assaulting a superior (Article 334 of the Criminal Code) and voluntary surrendering to captivity (Article 352.1 of the Criminal Code).
The first cases under Article 334 against the mobilised men began to surface in courts about six months post-September 2022—a typical duration for case investigation. The frequency of such cases hasn’t increased significantly since the war’s outset, and they aren’t directly linked to the reluctance to serve or fight.
Out of forty verdicts given for assaulting a commanding officer during mobilisation, only seven have been made public. Some convicted individuals gained nationwide notoriety even before their court hearing. For instance, in December 2022, Judge Dmitry Danilov of the Odintsovo Garrison Court based his decision on a video from the Telegram channel “Ostorozhno, Novosti,” where conscript Alexander Leshkov, in the Patriot park, shoves his commander and exhales a cloud from an vape in his face. Leshkov was sentenced to 5.5 years in a high-security prison for this act.
Assaulting a commander doesn’t always imply a tussle between a mobilised soldier and a career military officer. In January 2023, Judge Andrey Tekushan of the Omsk Garrison Military Court sentenced Senior Sergeant Stanislav Rybin to 6 years in a high-security prison for striking and threatening another mobilised, a Major, also his company commander. In court, Rybin claimed he merely intended to “intimidate” the commander for “unjustified use of his authoritative powers” by pinning the major to a bunk and holding a hunting knife to his throat.
Concerning the provision on voluntary surrender, not a single case has been filed in court thus far. This may be due to a stipulation in the article’s wording, stating its application “in the absence of signs of the crime stipulated by Article 275 [on treason].” Yet, treason cases against military personnel in border regions haven’t seen a significant uptick either: four cases were filed in 2022, and nine in 2023.
Editor: Dmitry Treschanin
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