NewsRussian soldiers desert en masse to avoid frontlines in Ukraine

Russian soldiers desert en masse to avoid frontlines in Ukraine

Russian prisoners of war. Soldiers, not wanting to fight, often surrender themselves.
Russian prisoners of war. Soldiers, not wanting to fight, often surrender themselves.
Images source: © PAP

10:07 AM EDT, June 15, 2024

The Kremlin is mass-producing "cannon fodder." On social media, Russians complain and share tips on how to avoid military service. The organization Iditie Liesom has already helped 30,000 conscripts and soldiers escape – the equivalent of two divisions.

Since the beginning of the aggression in Ukraine, the Russian army has irretrievably lost 505,000 troops—killed, wounded, captured, or missing. The Kremlin must replenish these giant losses with new conscripts. Currently, the draft does not exceed 15,000 per month, but only 6,000 to 12,000 new soldiers reach the front. The rest remain in the rear.

According to Russian media reports, the number of volunteers among convicts and men from the poorest regions has dropped significantly. In the cities, roundups have begun, and escapes from the army— or attempts to evade it—have increased.

You can read many stories of Russian deserters on the Iditie Liesom organization channel.

"Last year, I turned 23. I had been successfully avoiding the army for five years, but I was caught on the street in December last year. They put me in a van and took me to the induction centre," wrote one of them, hiding under the pseudonym Ali.

Ali faked an illness. After being taken to the hospital, he escaped. The gendarmerie began looking for him after a week.

"My mother later told me that the police and military, who came to her house every day, threatened her that a special brigade would find me within 12 hours, wherever I was. After two months, they started putting up flyers with my photo, even in places where I had never lived," wrote Ali, who is now hiding in Turkey.

The stories published by the escapees are meant to inspire the next conscripts, who haven't found the courage to escape from almost certain death or fear of being brought to trial.

In Russia, desertion is punishable by 15 years in prison. Voluntarily surrendering to captivity can result in up to ten years. Despite this, there is no shortage of people willing to escape service. They are mainly helped by the organization Iditie Liesom, which provides legal assistance and helps with crossing the border. According to the organization, since the beginning of 2023, when the Kremlin increased the draft, they have received 1,200 to 1,500 requests for help, not weekly, but daily.

Escape from death

Those who have already reached the front and do not want to fight most often surrender to the Ukrainians. The Russians do not officially admit how many of their soldiers have been captured. The Ukrainians are also quite reserved, only mentioning "thousands of prisoners" and the problems of finding suitable places to detain them.

Most Russian soldiers escape, leaving, or from the hospital during unit relocations. After a brief rehabilitation, the command even sends seriously injured soldiers back to the front. They fight until they die or become disabled.

Soldiers who decide to desert first try to leave Ukraine. The former border between the countries is fairly intensively patrolled, and checkpoints control all vehicles leaving the combat zone. The best chances of avoiding arrest are through injury or leave, the latter of which can be extorted or "bought."

An order from the commander is needed to go on leave or get supplies to the rear of the front. Often, it's enough to present a fake certificate of illness or the death of a close relative. On Telegram channels, such a certificate can be bought for $120. "No one checks it at the front because there's no time," write the Russian soldiers.

The weak link is hospitals. Sometimes, the doctors themselves facilitate the escape of the wounded. On paper, they fictitiously extend the stay of the injured, who have long since left the ward. If a soldier disappears this way, no one looks for him for a long time.

For almost two years, ads have been posted on social media channels offering painless, arm-breaking services. The service is not expensive: $12 to $24 is enough for the conscript to be admitted to the hospital.

Iditie Liesom provides instructions, which it posts on its channel and drills into the escapees' heads: do not appear at your residence; move to another region where you have no relatives; do not use ATM cards; use cash.

Another advice is to avoid large cities, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, where a system for collecting data from street cameras operates. Changing the SIM card to one not associated with a passport is also advisable.

We are ready to break Russian law

Grigory Swerdlin, who until recently headed a St. Petersburg foundation supporting the homeless, is behind the Iditie Liesom project. He fled to Georgia in March 2022, like about a million other Russians, and has been living there since.

He founded the organization after the mobilization was announced in October 2022. He helped almost 6,800 Russians avoid being sent to the front in the first six months alone. Today, he has helped about 30,000 people to hide—the equivalent of two mechanized divisions.

Swerdlin boasts about his activities online. "What sets us apart from other projects is that we are ready to break Russian law and are not afraid to talk about it," he writes.

He does not discuss the volunteers who operate in the Russian Federation and the target countries. Except for the head, the organization functions underground. A volunteer who is exposed may face up to ten years in a penal colony for acting to the detriment of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

"Many of those we helped leave the country would have found themselves at the front without our help, shooting at Ukrainians," Swerdlin writes on Telegram.

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