Many Russian soldiers are frustrated by the war in Ukraine. There are reports of disobeying orders and acts of sabotage. One who has already fought in the neighboring country has told the BBC why he is refusing a second deployment.
Despite its massive military superiority, Russia has not managed to break the resistance of Ukraine, even after 100 days of war. One of the reasons for this is the low morale within the Kremlin troops. Again and again there are reports of Russian soldiers who do not or no longer want to fight against their neighbors. There are also said to have been refusals to obey orders and acts of sabotage.
There are “anecdotal reports” about the poor morale of the troops, a US Department of Defense official said in early May. Thus, some middle-ranking officers at various levels, even up to battalion level, either refused to follow orders or did not follow them with the zeal one would expect of an officer.
Many soldiers do not want to go back to Ukraine
At the same time, the US think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reported that Russian units in the Zaporizhia region of southern Ukraine had very low morale, were in poor psychological condition, complained about the inefficiency of operations in the area and often get drunk. They would even “shoot their own vehicles to avoid having to go to the front”. According to the military administration of Zaporizhia, there were almost 20 such cases, the US newspaper “Newsweek” wrote in early May.
According to Russian human rights lawyers and activists, there is also great frustration among the soldiers who have already completed their first mission in Ukraine and are now supposed to go there again. Several hundred army personnel who did not want to take part in military operations in the neighboring country approached him with requests for legal assistance, lawyer Mikhail Benyash from the southern Russian city of Krasnodar told the Euronews TV channel in early April.
The Conflict Intelligence Team, a media project that examines the Russian military’s experience in Ukraine using confidential interviews and open source material, estimates that a sizeable minority of Russian contract soldiers from the first wave of attacks refuse to go to war, according to British broadcaster BBC to return.
One of those frustrated soldiers, who had been fighting in Ukraine for five weeks when the invasion began and is currently at home in Russia, told the BBC: “I don’t want [to go back to Ukraine] to kill and be killed be,” he told the British broadcaster, who called him Sergei because his real name should not be published. His experiences there would have traumatized him.
“I thought we were the Russian army, the most super duper in the world,” the young man explained bitterly. Instead, they were expected to operate themselves without basic equipment, such as night vision goggles. “We were like blind kittens. I’m shocked at our army. It wouldn’t have taken much to equip us. Why wasn’t it done?”
Soldiers who “didn’t know how to shoot”
Sergei joined the army as a conscript — most Russian men aged 18 to 27 are required to serve a year, the BBC writes. After a few months, however, he signed up for two years as a contract soldier, which earned him a salary.
In January he was sent near the Ukrainian border for what he was told was a military exercise. A month later, on February 24, the day Russia launched its invasion, he was ordered to invade Ukraine. His unit came under fire almost immediately.
“Well, as you’ve realized by now, that’s no joke,” his commander said as they stayed at an abandoned farm. He was completely shocked, Sergei told the BBC. His first thought was, “Is this really happening to me?”
His unit was constantly being fired upon, both while advancing and when resting at night. Ten of his 50 comrades were killed and 10 others wounded. Almost all were younger than 25 years. He had heard of Russian soldiers who were so inexperienced that they “didn’t know how to shoot and couldn’t tell one end of a mortar shell from the other.”
According to Sergei, the Russian troops clearly lacked a strategy. Reinforcements had not arrived and the soldiers were ill-equipped to take a large city, he reports to the British broadcaster. “We went without a helicopter — just in a column, as if we were going to a parade.”
He believes that his commanders planned to seize strongholds and important cities very quickly and that they expected the Ukrainians to simply surrender, the young soldier said. “We charged forward, with short overnights, no trenches, no reconnaissance. We left no one behind in the rear, so there was no protection if someone came from behind and charged us.” He believes that this is the main reason why the number of casualties among the Russian armed forces was so high. “Had we moved gradually and scoured the streets for mines, many casualties could have been avoided.”
In early April, according to the BBC, Sergei was sent back across the border to a camp on the Russian side. The troops had therefore been withdrawn from northern Ukraine to regroup. Later in the month he received orders to return to Ukraine and told his commander that he was not ready to do so.
“He said it was my decision,” the station quoted the Russian as saying. “They didn’t even try to dissuade us because we weren’t the first.” Nevertheless, he sought legal advice and a lawyer advised him and two like-minded colleagues to return their weapons and return to their unit’s headquarters. There they were supposed to write in writing that they were “morally and psychologically exhausted” and could no longer fight in Ukraine. Otherwise, leaving the unit could be counted as a desertion and result in a two-year prison sentence in a disciplinary battalion.
Military law allows Russian soldiers to refuse
Russian human rights lawyer Alexei Tabalov told the BBC that army commanders are trying to intimidate contract soldiers into staying with their units. However, Russian military law contains clauses allowing soldiers to refuse to fight. Euronews also reports that no criminal proceedings would be instituted in such cases. Those who refuse to go to Ukraine “actually only face dismissal for not fulfilling the terms of the contract,” one of the lawyers advising the soldiers told the broadcaster.
While Sergei does not want to return to the front, he wants to complete the rest of his military service in Russia to avoid unforeseen consequences — although his refusal to serve has been accepted, the BBC writes. However, this means that he has no guarantee that he will not be sent back to Ukraine during the remainder of his service. “I can see that the war is going on, it will not go away,” Sergei told the broadcaster. “Anything — even the worst — can happen in these months that I have left.”
Sources: Institute for the Study of War, US Department of Defense, BBC, “Newsweek”