Staunton, April 22 – Following a declaration of war, Russian commanders can file charges against any subordinate who refuses to follow orders to go into combat; but because no such declaration has been made in the case of Ukraine, commanders facing such resistance can’t do so and so are forced to engage in threats, former military prosecutors say.
Since Putin’s “special military operation” began in Ukraine on February 24, they tell the Zona news agency, there have been no soldiers charged and brought to court because the law is very clear that in the absence of a declaration of war, such charges can’t be lodged (zona.media/article/2022/04/22/nah).
Were such charges to be brought, they would represent an implicit acknowledgement by the powers that be in Moscow that they are engaging in an act of war, something the Putin regime wants to avoid. But by eliminating the ability of the military to impose legal sanctions, the Kremlin has at least in part shot itself in the foot.
Russian soldiers who do not want to fight in Ukraine can see that their commanders have few options other than threats and acts of intimidation and denigration; and because those are part and parcel of military life in Putin’s Russia, many of them feel free to ignore them, confident that nothing too serious will happen to them.
Their commanders can abuse them, can issue orders for them to go, and even send letters to their relatives and friends at home denouncing them for their failure to live up to the military code as defenders of the country. They can even enter into their “military tickets” comments about their betrayal of the country.
But what they can’t do or at least have not been able to do up to now is involve the courts in this process. As a result, those who have resisted being sent to Ukraine – on their numbers, see zona.media/news/2022/04/06/pskov and zona.media/article/2022/04/06/ombudsman – often end by being discharged rather than criminally punished.
If the war continues, it seems likely that the Kremlin will seek to modify existing laws so that those who refuse service abroad even in the absence of a declaration of war can nonetheless be prosecuted – or alternatively use the military justice system in violation of the law to impose criminal sanctions on such people.
But so far, the Putin regime has taken neither such action; and so many soldiers who don’t want to go to fight in Ukraine may succeed in avoiding that fate. At the same time, the Zona news agency reports, soldiers returning from there may cause some resisters to change their minds as the veterans come back with tales about Ukrainian success in killing their colleagues.
As so often in military affairs, soldiers often fight not for abstractions like their country but rather for their fellow servicemen; and to the extent that is true, the news agency suggests, successful avoidance of service may not be something that will last well into the future if the war continues for some time.