A story from the Russian press that has already been picked up by Western media concerns deserters from the Russian army who claim to have reasonably feared they would be sent to eastern Ukraine to fight in the war there. The most interesting factor in this story is perhaps not whether the beliefs of these soldiers were well founded, but rather, whether the rumors of formal Russian military participation in Ukraine have spread so widely within Russia itself that they are affecting the effectiveness of the Russian armed forces and will lead to a breakdown of order and discipline. When the rank and file of any army ceases to trust its commanders, can widespread mutiny be far behind? Similarly, could an overt ‘conscientious objector’ movement develop in Russia today over the Ukraine conflict, as it failed to do in the USSR during the Soviet war in Afghanistan?
Western media and governments have long disseminated the conviction that Russian military units are active inside Ukraine, and indeed this seems incontrovertible in light of satellite imagery and other information, including first-hand testimony of military personnel captured within Ukraine’s borders. But the following story is from the Russian online newspaper Gazeta.Ru, which attempts to show both sides of the story by quoting representatives of the Russian Presidential Human Rights Council…
Maykop contractors who feared being sent to Ukraine – on trial for desertion
Gazeta.Ru / 11 July 2015 ~ Andrei Koshik (Maykop), Vladimir Dergachev, Yelizaveta Mayetnaya
Several dozen contract soldiers from Military Unit № 22179, the 33rd Motorized Rifle Brigade (Maykop Intelligence Brigade), escaped from the training grounds in the Rostov region, fearing they would be sent to Ukraine. Criminal charges have been brought against them, and they face up to ten years in prison for willful desertion. The soldiers and their relatives told Gazeta.Ru that they had been living in subhuman conditions, and that they had been urged by propagandists to go as volunteers to Donbas. Gazeta.Ru conducted its own investigation of the events.
23-year-old soldier Anatoly Kudrin from the Maykop Intelligence Brigade [Maykop is the capital city of the Republic of Adygeya, in Russia’s Caucasus region – Ed.] has already been convicted for abandoning his post. He received a sentence of six months in a penal colony. Two other soldiers are in custody, and investigations of other contract soldiers who left their bases are ongoing. According to lawyers, the soldiers left the ‘Kadamovsky’ training ground in the Rostov region, fearing they would be sent to fight in the war in Donbas.
According to investigators, the contractors left the ‘Kadamovsky’ base ‘not wanting to endure the hardships of military service.’ Now, all these contractors – a few dozen people – are under investigation under Article 337 of the Criminal Code (‘Unauthorized Abandonment of Unit,’ carrying a sentence of up to five years in prison) and Article 338 of the Criminal Code (‘Desertion,’ carrying up to ten years).
‘I did not want to take part in the fighting on the territory of Ukraine.’
We are meeting with the mother of 20-year-old rocket launcher Ivan Shevkunov in a cafe in the center of Maykop. She is a short, very excited woman.
‘My son served as a conscript in Armenia in the Air Defense Forces. In July 2014, he returned and immediately wanted to continue serving in Sevastopol, in the village of Privolny,’ Svetlana Nikolayevna [Shevkunova] tells Gazeta.Ru. ‘We went to the draft board, and he wrote a statement and began to undergo a medical examination. In the recruiting office he was given a blank contract, which was to be sent to Sevastopol for signature by commanders. Already in the ‘9th’ (control-assembly point in Krasnodar – Gazeta. Ru) they turned him around, saying he could only serve in the Maykop Brigade. He came here on September 17th and enlisted.’
In late September, Ivan Shevkunov was sent with his unit to ‘Kadamovsky’ for military training in the October district of Rostov region. The base is located near Novocherkassk. This is the place of assembly of the Southern Military District. It is about 80 kilometers from here to the border with Ukraine, and this adjacent territory is divided between the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics [LNR and DNR, respectively – Ed.].
‘He said that he was going to the border with Ukraine, on a trip that would last until December. He called every day to complain about the conditions: he was sleeping on boards that had been abandoned on the ground, and for the first three days they were feeding themselves from what they could get from the rebels located nearby,’ says Svetlana. ‘It turned out that he had to sign some kind of document in the unit, and he asked for money for the trip and returned to Maykop.’
There, Ivan was assigned to another company, where he continued to serve, housed in barracks. When his company returned from ‘Kadamovsky,’ according to his mother, they started to pressure Shevkunov. As a result, he wrote three letters of resignation. And he did not receive a single response.
Svetlana Shevkunova claims that her son was afraid of being sent to Donbas.
‘He told me that the soldiers were being forced to go as volunteers,’ says the woman. ‘When I was with my son in the lobby of the chief of staff of Unit № 22179, Maj. Kambarov, he began to shout that Vanya now had only two options: jail or the ‘Kadamovsky’ training ground. There were no other choices.
On June 10th, in the matter of Ivan Shevkunov, a criminal case was opened under Section 1, Article 338 of the Criminal Code (‘Desertion’).
From the decision to institute criminal proceedings:
‘On 30 September 2014, conscript I. N. Shevkunov, being a serving soldier under contract, being a member of his unit on a working excursion at the ‘Kadamovsky’ base, stationed at the October (rural) district of Rostov region, being dissatisfied with the fact that he was sent on a mission outside of Maykop and the Republic of Adygea, and not wanting to endure the hardships and privations of military service, with the intent of completely evading military service … willfully abandoned his place of service – the Kadamovsky training base, and left his place of residence.’
The story of 27-year-old Sgt. Pavel Tynchenko from the very same unit is similar. His mother, Valentina Ivanovna [Tynchenko], said that Pavel had served for seven years in the Northern Fleet – on the atomic cruiser ‘Peter the Great.’ For family reasons he returned to Maykop and tried to obtain a contract in a reconnaissance brigade.
‘The command delayed the document process, but then they called unexpectedly in early August from the recruiting office and told him to urgently get his documents together. Over the course – I think – of three days, he did the physical training, received his rations and went on to the Ashuluk training base in the Astrakhan region,’ recall relatives of the soldier arrested under Sec. 4, Art. 337 of the Criminal Code (‘Unauthorized Abandonment of Unit’).
Tynchenko returned in late September from exercises, at which he had spent nearly two months. He spent the weekend at home and was then transferred to the ‘Kadamovsky’ training ground.
‘Previous exercises were held in appalling conditions, although my son had already served under contract and was ready for hardship. But what happened in Ashuluk was unbelievable,’ says Valentina Tynchenko. ‘He filed a letter of resignation. They gathered them – a few people – on the parade ground of the unit, and in the presence of guards read out the decree on the mission, forced them into a truck and took them to the Rostov region.’
The sergeant told his mother over the phone that they had taken them several times by military truck from the border area to fields where they guarded combat artillery units. They were there for a week to ten days, sleeping on blankets thrown on the ground. Tynchenko returned to Maykop with pneumonia. Officially, he spent a month at military training in the Rostov region, from October 15th to November 14th.
‘Having reviewed the ruling, I concluded that my testimony was not reflected in the ‘Failure to Obey an Order’ decision. I did not carry out a criminal order, as I did not want to go against the oath that I had taken, and I did not want to take part in the fighting on the territory of Ukraine. Please note this in the court order,’ wrote Tynchenko.
8,000 rubles a day and veteran status offered for trip to Donbas
Tatiana Chernetskaya, deputy general director of ‘First United Union of Lawyers of the Kuban’ LLC, representing the interests of five contractors against whom criminal cases have been brought, told Gazeta.Ru that, according to her information, there are dozens of criminal cases against military personnel who left the training ground. ‘According to these guys, the commander of the unit says that the military-investigation department can’t cope with so many criminal cases,’ says Chernetskaya. ‘The guys are assigned numbers – 101, 137 – in the queue of criminal cases, and they get a number and wait to be summoned to an investigator.’
According to official statistics, the Maykop garrison court issued 62 rulings under Article 337 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation Sec. 4 (‘Unauthorized Abandonment of Unit’) in the first half of 2015. In the previous five years – from 2010 to 2014 – it had issued almost two times fewer resolutions – only 35.
According Chernetskaya, several dozen contractors being prosecuted under the ‘Desertion’ and ‘Unauthorized Abandonment of Unit’ articles are in identical circumstances: at exactly the same time, from late September to mid-November, they left the ‘Kadamovsky’ training ground, explaining that they had experienced inhuman conditions and intrusive proposals to serve as volunteers on the territory of the LNR and DNR.
‘No one wants to fight a war in the Donbas either for 8,000 a day, as promised by the recruiters, or for 28,000. The soldiers fled from ‘Kadamovsky’ – someone asked for money from relatives, while others traveled as vagabonds, hitchhiking. When they arrived at their unit, they filed letters of resignation, but they were simply disregarded,’ says Chernetskaya.
About what happened at the base, she adds that 22-year-old Jr. Sgt. Alexander Yenenko is under house arrest.
‘After compulsory military service, which I performed in the same unit, I stayed there under contract. The contract was signed on 26 November 2012 for three years,’ Yenenko explained to Gazeta.Ru, serving as commander of a transport department.
‘I went to ‘Kadamovsky’ on October 14th. The guys were gathering ‘gobies’ at the site. They were digging holes pointlessly for whole days and then burying them. They were talking about how [the authorities] wanted to send them to Ukraine, and were waiting for the order to cross the border for about a week, but they canceled at the last moment.’
Yenenko says he also saw ‘some people in camouflage clothing with no insignia, campaigning for money to fight in the Donbas.’
‘It was the end of October, there were night frosts, and everyone was coughing like dogs. We were buying firewood at our own expense, and burning stoves directly in front of our tents. The hardest thing was the lack of water: they brought one car to the kitchen, and we were given only a cup of tea a day. Locals arrived and sold mineral water for 100 rubles a bottle,’ says another soldier, who asked not to be named.
‘The agitators were arriving – without insignia but with epaulets of major’s rank and above. Other contractors called their comrades, discouraging them by saying that if something happened to them in Ukraine, they would be recorded retroactively as deserters who had fled and accidentally got blown up by a landmine. The agitators were not pressuring them with patriotism, but practically promised to give them veteran status (which entitles you to many benefits, housing and so forth. – Gazeta.Ru) and 8,000 a day. In fact, I know from my colleagues, they reneged on the money and no one consented to pay anything.’
Enlisted tractor mechanic Anatoly Kudrin signed a contract a month before the trip, at the end of August 2014. For leaving his post he was sentenced to half a year in a penal colony, and in early July disciplinary responsibility was attached to him for placing a swastika on social media.
‘People were coming to the base to agitate to go to Ukraine. The main incentive was money: they promised 8,000 a day. It was unbearable at the training grounds, and I also feared that I’d be taken to the Donbas by force. So after four days I went back to Maykop,’ Kudrin explained.
All the contract soldiers responding to Gazeta.Ru agree on one thing: the agitators were not from their unit.
The position of the command can be understood from a video, which relatives of the suspect contractors presented to Gazeta.Ru. In it, the commander of the military unit, Lt. Col. Sergei Kens, answers the mother of Ivan Shevkunov presumably with a lie.
‘Every third day two vehicles left there from the military unit (probably referring to the ‘Kadamovsky’ base – Gazeta.Ru) … I’ll tell you how they do it: they appoint the time of 10 o’clock, and they arrive at 10:30 – only the cars have gone. And those who are seated, they ride in the back of the car – I am personally a witness – they reach the ‘Fontanel’ and leap out. They just jump,’ Lt. Col. Kens says in the video. ‘They run in military uniform, shamefully.’
Speaking about the possible involvement of contractors in the fighting in the Donbas, Kens says: ‘And I say furthermore – these are the words of the contractors, 80 people: we will not go to Ukraine to fight! <…> Moms come – they’ve been in Ukraine seven months. Who was in Ukraine for seven months? What are you talking about? What Ukraine for seven months? What lies are your kids saying to you? And the last place where I stayed for three months, I’ll tell you one thing – those are real men there, 16-year-old peasants, and the women there are the same.’
Gazeta.Ru called the political officer of the 2nd Battalion, 33rd Separate Motor-Rifle Brigade, 1st Lt. Maxim Grankin, who had communicated with parents and identified himself as the assistant to the commander of military unit № 22179. However, after hearing the question, Grankin hung up and refused to take further calls. Lt. Col. Kens could not be reached. The privates and sergeants do not know who has been exercising overall command of the ‘Kadamovsky’ base. The commanders who arrived with them carried out the military training routine, but the overall training leadership at the base consisted of officers whom the Maykop contractors did not know, probably from the Southern Military District.
At the Ministry of Defense, they could not provide comment on operations. However, the Defense Ministry has repeatedly articulated the following official position to Gazeta.ru: reports of the presence of Russian troops on the territory of Ukraine are lies, and rumors of alleged ongoing agitation in Russian units aimed at getting volunteers to go to the Donbas are unreliable.
The Question of the Legality of Agitation
The military statutes state that soldiers must fulfill lawful orders, says the head of the relevant commission of the Council for Human Rights, Sergei Krivenko.
‘It says that the main type of order is written. In case of any doubt, the soldier should demand the order in writing from any of the officers,’ explains Krivenko.
According to Krivenko, sending troops to combat missions abroad is impossible without a presidential decree. Formally sending soldiers [abroad] risks violating articles [of the Criminal Code – Ed.] on ‘Mercenary Status’ and ‘Participation in Illegal Armed Formations.’
Krivenko recalls that, for unauthorized abandonment of a unit, by law 10 days are given for the soldier to appeal to the prosecutor and write a statement of the circumstances that led him to take such a desperate step. ‘If there is real assessment according to the law, the commanders may be held responsible for violation of the order of the unit,’ says Krivenko.
Anatoly Sahlin, a former colonel who has served in two wars and is an expert on the Presidential Council for Human Rights and the Development of Civil Society of the Russian Federation, says that each case of abandonment of unit must be thoroughly worked out, and not all the stories about the administration of the Donbas should be believed.
‘We have pending cases where contractors were dismissed for failure to carry out an order, but which have not given rise to criminal proceedings. One contractor was even restored to service after his dismissal was deemed illegal. Because it is practically impossible to work arrange this wording to any kind of power structure,’ says Sahlin.