22.09.23 War Analytics

Monument to a Deserter: What do we know about desertion in the Russian army and will there be more defectors?

Alexander Finiarel
In the year since mobilisation was announced, the number of convictions for desertion in the Russian military has nearly quadrupled. On one hand, this still represents a small percentage of the total number of troops, but on the other, it only takes into account those who have been apprehended, making it likely that the true extent of the issue remains hidden behind these figures. Nevertheless, desertion has not yet become a mass problem for the Russian army, as sometimes occurs in prolonged conflicts. This may be attributed to the Russian regime's extensive array of repressive measures and its adept use of them, as well as the near absence of safe havens where deserters could easily escape the reach of the Russian state. At the same time, given that Russian authorities have decided not to rotate their mobilised forces, the dynamics of desertion could undergo significant changes during the second year of the war. Research indicates that combat cohesion during the initial stage of a conflict reduces the likelihood of desertion, but later, this same factor increases the likelihood of collective desertion among entire units. Another crucial factor is societal attitudes towards desertion.

In a number of German cities and in Vienna today there are monuments to Wehrmacht deserters from the Second World War. But what is generally known about this phenomenon, what lessons can be drawn from other military conflicts, and which factors are likely to influence the dynamics of desertion in the Russian army are explored in a special overview by Re: Russia.

What is known about desertion in the Russian army?

 On the anniversary of the announcement of mobilisation, 'Mediazona' released an investigative report revealing that the number of convictions for unauthorised leave and desertion over the past year exceeded 3,000. This is almost four times higher than the annual number of convictions for such offences before the war. In 2021, around 600 convictions were issued for these violations, while in 2022, there were nearly 1,000, and in the first half of 2023 alone, there were over 2,000 such cases, according to the publication's calculations. Moreover, the handing down of convictions lags behind the actual transgressions by about five months. The first convictions of military personnel who participated in the invasion began to appear only in June 2022, and those involving mobilised individuals in February 2023. Since July 2023, courts have handed down more than 500 such convictions per month. This could mean that over 2,000 cases are currently at various stages of investigation and trial.

In addition to these statistics, there are also fragmentary reports of more than 100 Wagner deserters, almost 100 escaped fighters from the 'Storm Z' unit created by the Ministry of Defence to replace the Wagner PMC, statements of withdrawal from the frontlines by the 'Rusich' DPR unit, and 'Verstka' data on nearly 1,800 soldiers who have refused to participate in the war and were held in DNR prisons in July 2022, and so forth.

However, compared to the size of the Russian contingent in Ukraine, which British intelligence estimated to be over 200,000 in May 2023, and Ukrainian analysts estimated at 350,000 in August, figures in the range of 2-3% of forces seem quite insignificant. During World War II, 2% of German soldiers deserted from the army, and this is considered an extremely low rate. It is worth noting, however, that the convictions discovered by 'Mediazona' were passed on those who were apprehended (almost all defendants were hiding at home, making them easy to find) and those who voluntarily surrendered; data about deserters who have not been caught remains unknown. Moreover, reports of forced labour units, violence, and torture against those who refuse to fight or attempt to leave the combat zone, as well as their confinement in special prisons and trenches, suggest a high propensity for desertion. Thus, we cannot accurately gauge the true scale of the phenomenon based solely on the number of legal cases.

More reliable information is likely available to local commanders. However, they may choose to conceal the extent of the issue from higher authorities. Olga Romanova, head of the 'Russia Behind Bars' Foundation, believes that there was a very high level of desertion in the Wagner PMC, but some of those deserters have likely been categorised as missing or deceased. A member of the organisation 'Go to the Woods,' which helps Russians to avoid participation in the war, told Re:Russia that several unrelated deserters they had interacted with reported that nearly 80% of their units had deserted, with only about 15% of them being captured. These reports seem quite realistic (as will be discussed below), although they do not suggest a mass exodus from the army.

Portrait of a Deserter

In a typical story of desertion or unauthorised leave, the driving force behind the escape often stems from a desire for brief respite, a visit home, leisure time, or to get drunk, as ‘Mediazona’ has reported elsewhere. Such deserters typically return to their unit or report to the military authorities after a period of time.

More often than not, desertion lacks political motivations. Studies of various contexts, from the British army of the 18th century, to the American army of the 20th century, and modern Nigerian army fighting insurgents, consistently reveal that personal problems, dissatisfaction with leadership or supplies, corruption, or non-payment of salaries, rather than dissatisfaction with the conflict itself, were the primary reasons for desertion. Surveys conducted by the US Army Research Institute after the Vietnam War found that only 9% of the deserters surveyed attributed their actions to dissatisfaction with the American invasion, although a later study indicated that at least a quarter of deserters defected for ideological reasons. According to the institute, more than half of deserters attempted to resolve their problems by initially reaching out to their superiors — much like soldiers in Russia today who submit appeals to governors or officers, engaging in open disputes with the Ministry of Defence.

Edward Shils, an American sociologist who has studied desertion among American soldiers in Vietnam and among Wehrmacht soldiers during World War II, notes that deserters from these two wars often came from troubled backgrounds and had committed other infractions prior to deserting. 64% of them had dropped out of school, compared to 28% of military personnel in general, and their intellectual abilities were below the army's average. Among Wehrmacht deserters, one in five had previously been convicted of misconduct, either in the army or civilian life. These findings suggest a low level of adaptability, as 27% of American deserters cited 'problems adapting to army life' as their reason for fleeing.

Studies indicate that soldiers rarely desert directly from the frontline. 39% of American deserters during the Vietnam War fled while on leave. While the extreme distance of the theatre of war from 'home' certainly plays a role in this case, the sentences uncovered by 'Mediazona' also indicate that the majority of Russian soldiers who desert or go AWOL are doing so during their leave or redeployment.

However, among American draft dodgers and deserters during the Vietnam War, another study has revealed a marked distinction between those who fled abroad to avoid the war and those who hid within the United States. Emigrant deserters were far more likely to be white (98% compared to 73% of those who remained in the US), better educated (49% with a college degree compared to 8% of those in America), held higher ranks in the military, originated from more prosperous regions (only 16% came from the impoverished South of the US, compared to 34% of those who were hiding within the country), and generally shared more social similarities with 'conscientious' objectors of the war. They were much more likely to cite their dissatisfaction with the US invasion of Vietnam (72% compared to 23%) as the reason for their desertion, rather than personal problems or integration issues. Moreover, emigrant deserters more frequently deserted from their unit's locations rather than while on leave.

Vulnerable Populations

One of the most frequently cited factors influencing desertion rates in studies is nationality and, more broadly, belonging to discriminated groups. Such groups typically have the least interest in participating in a war and often face significant problems with adaptation, which is why they make up a disproportionately high share of deserters. For example, during the Vietnam War, 20% of American army deserters were African Americans, while they comprised only 14% of the army as a whole. 40% of Wehrmacht deserters were forcibly mobilised residents of occupied territories.

The overwhelming majority of deserters from the Syrian army during the ongoing civil war since 2011 have been Sunni Muslims from lower ranks, while the officer corps has been largely composed of members of the Alawite sect, to which Bashar Assad belongs. However, being Sunni was not in itself a reason to defect. Rather, when the Assad regime began to suspect Sunnis of disloyalty and propagated the idea that the civil war resulted from a conflict between followers of different branches of Islam, it led to increased distrust and mass desertions, essentially becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Theodore MacLauchlin, in his book on desertion during civil conflicts, notes that soldiers, who fear severe punishment for minor infractions or face suspicions of unreliability within their social group, attempt desertion more often, even in the absence of dissatisfaction with the war, personal problems, or issues with integration into the army.

Statistical analysis of conflicts occurring between 1800 and 2011 conducted by Jason Lyall has also demonstrated that the army's effectiveness is affected by the number of soldiers from discriminated ethnic groups and the degree of their discrimination. The higher these indicators, the more likely it is that the army will have a high (above 10%) desertion and defection rate, suffer greater losses than the enemy, and require the use of barrier units. For example, the Ottoman army during World War I was predominantly composed of individuals from severely discriminated groups and, as Lyall argues, turned out to be highly ineffective. More than half a million men deserted during the war, three times the number of combat casualties.

This trend is also reflected in sporadic statistical data from the Russia-Ukraine war. For example, out of the 1,800 military personnel who refused to fight in the first six months of the war, as reported by 'Verstka,' 1,100 were from national republics. In this regard, the Kremlin's hopes of using representatives of smaller nations and recent Russian citizens originating from Central Asian countries as a human resource for the war are likely to fail.

Desertion and Cohesion

As researchers Todd Lehmann and Yuri Zhukov, who analysed soldiers’ behaviour in military conflicts between 1939 and 2011, point out, defeatism is contagious. Soldiers fight as long as they believe that other soldiers will also fight. Accordingly, the flight and surrender of one unit provokes the flight and surrender of others. MacLauchlin also underscores that soldiers maintain their front-line faith when they believe their comrades will fight alongside them. The lack of such confidence encourages desertion.

A significant portion of desertion cases occurs either before deployment to the front or shortly after — soldiers simply do not have the time to integrate into their unit. However, once a unit reaches a certain level of cohesion, soldiers develop a sense of responsibility towards their comrades, which deters desertion. Nonetheless, history has also shown that, as a war drags on and fatigue grows, this cohesion may no longer prevent desertion but rather stimulate it. In situations of psychological breakdown within a unit, entire units may desert together.

Towards the end of World War II, Wehrmacht units often surrendered in their entirety, and sometimes even individual prisoners of war were sent back to their units to convince their comrades to surrender. 'Fragging' — the murder of officers, typically passed off as accidents — occurred with the approval and support of unit members in 80% of cases in the American army during the Vietnam War. In the army of North Vietnam, efforts were made to weaken bonds between soldiers by distributing fighters from the same village to different units and periodically mixing established units to reduce the level of ‘cohesion desertion’. According to another investigation by 'Mediazona’, it appears that the Russian command has also tried to disband cohesive units consisting of fellow countrymen when they or their relatives start effectively coordinating their protests.

Thus, the influence of 'cohesion' on the desertion rate has a U-shaped character. Socialisation and combat cohesion will deter desertion until the 'spirit of the troops' or the mood of the unit changes, but after that, the same factor will work in the opposite direction — in favour of collective and mass desertion. Therefore, it is likely that we can trust the testimonies of those who say that most of their unit deserted — these were probably units with a high level of cohesion. However, this should not be used to draw conclusions about the overall scale of desertion in the army.

Mass Desertion: Protracted war, defeat and delegitimisation

During the Iran-Iraq War, the successful counteroffensive by Iran nearly led to the collapse of the Iraqi army, which saw a reduction in its numbers by a third, in large part due to desertion. Intelligence agencies were forced to shift their focus from pursuing Saddam Hussein's political opponents to chasing deserters. The situation was rectified only through a decree on mobilisation, the cancellation of deferments, the imposition of the death penalty for desertion, the persecution of deserters' families, and a ban on the Hajj pilgrimage for all Iraqi men under 60 years old. However, as the conflict dragged on, desertion in the Iraqi army grew exponentially. In just the last three years of the war, more than 100,000 deserters were apprehended, despite the fact that the Iraqi army consisted of 800,000 personnel by the end of the war.

In the Russian army during World War I, many soldiers self-inflicted wounds to be sent from the front to a hospital. In October 1914, the hospital in Lviv received 600 such soldiers daily. In 1915, self-inflicted wounds accounted for 25% of injuries. When desertion from the Russian army began to take on a mass character in 1916 due to troop fatigue, the command was forced to allocate several divisions to apprehend deserters and protect the railways, as deserters fled from trains carrying soldiers. In the winter of 1915/1916, soldiers deserted either from rear units of the active army or from marching companies heading to the front. Among the latter, up to 25% of servicemen might not have reached their destination.

The growth of desertion not only delegitimises the war in the eyes of the population but also contributes to the replenishment of anti-regime forces. Historian Dina Rizk Khoury notes in her book on the Iran-Iraq War that desertion undermined Saddam Hussein's attempts to portray the invasion of Iran as a popular, patriotic war. Many deserters joined the Iraqi opposition in Iran or in Kurdish areas in the north. In Syria during the civil war, deserters, numbering close to a third of the initial size of the army, formed the backbone of the rebel groups which are still fighting against Bashar al-Assad's regime.

As peace researcher David Cortright, who has investigated anti-war activism since the Vietnam War, notes, the involvement of soldiers in the anti-war movement had a significant impact on ending the conflict. This was because, on the one hand, it was difficult to accuse them of being unpatriotic after their service at the front and, on the other hand, they maintained connections within the military, where they could engage in agitation. For example, Vietnam veterans organised a civilian tribunal in Detroit where they recounted the war crimes, in which they had participated or which they had witnessed. This initiative led to congressional hearings where American army crimes and the very purpose of the war were discussed. Deserters who went abroad produced anti-war newspapers that were later distributed on American military bases. Similarly, Russian deserters who have managed to escape to safe countries have begun to provide testimonies about Russia's crimes in Ukraine.

Conversely, public opinion about the war also affects the increase in desertion. According to a study by Kevin Koehler, Holger Albrecht, and Dorothy Ohl, who interviewed Syrian deserters, the key factor in the transition from passive discontent to desertion among soldiers was the support of their families and loved ones, who convinced them to leave the army and promised assistance. A study of desertion from the Confederate army in the final stages of the American Civil War also shows that soldiers from states where it became socially acceptable and endorsed immediately began to desert in large numbers. It is worth noting that surveys conducted by the ‘Chronicles’ project have demonstrated that the number of Russians who were sympathetic to those who had evaded mobilisation increased from 17% in October 2022 to 47% in February 2023, indicating a growth in support for avoiding participation in the war.

Another crucial factor is the existence of areas beyond the regime's control but accessible to deserters. During the Spanish Civil War, deserters most often hid in mountainous regions. During the Iran-Iraq War, they sought refuge with the Kurds or, until the successful Iranian counteroffensive deprived them of this opportunity, among their fellow believers in the captured territories. In Syria, deserters fled to rebel-held areas. Yugoslav deserters and draft evaders escaped to Hungary, which they did not need a visa to enter. Similarly, Russian deserters most often flee to Armenia and Kazakhstan because Russians do not need foreign passports to enter these countries, and, unlike Kyrgyzstan and Belarus, these countries have not yet extradited Russian deserters (although a precedent has already been set in Kazakhstan, from which FSO officer Mikhail Zhilin was extradited).

Will the second-year effect come into play?

Numerous factors suggest that the Russian army may suffer from a high level of desertion. Its soldiers lack a clear understanding of the war's objectives. The army itself is composed of diverse units with different tasks and statuses: regular army units, private military contractors (PMCs), separatist groups, Kadyrovtsy (fighters loyal to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov), mobilised conscripts, and even coerced conscripts. There is a low level of trust among these groups and categories, especially given that some of them serve as paramilitary forces. The army faces issues in coordination, logistics, and supply, which are regularly complained about by both rank-and-file soldiers and high-ranking officers who regularly record collective appeals to regional governors. Finally, recruitment of contractors and mobilisation efforts have focused on economically disadvantaged regions and social strata, and a significant portion of the army is composed of convicts.

Moreover, to avoid a new wave of mobilisation and the associated social shock this would cause, the Russian leadership has likely made the decision to keep those who have already been deployed on the frontlines in place. Judging by the constant complaints from 'war correspondents' and officers about the lack of rotation, discontent and, consequently, the significance of the desertion problem are likely to increase in the second year of mobilisation.

The Russian regime possesses a wide range of repressive means to suppress this process and, in practice, has employed almost all the methods available to authoritarian countries: offering high salaries, establishing checkpoints and paramilitary squads, confiscating passports, imposing bans on leaving the country or being discharged, and more. As Sergey Krivenko, director of the human rights group 'Grazhdanin. Armia. Pravo' (Citizen. Army. Law) has noted, these measures initially deterred servicemen from refusing to participate in the war, but over time, they have become less effective.

Further, Russia has highly developed means of surveillance of its citizens, much more so than during any previous conflict in human history. Information on the whereabouts of citizens can be relayed to the state by clinics, banks, social networks, mobile operators, taxi services, and Russian cities are teeming with cameras equipped with facial recognition systems. The Ministry of Digital Development, Communications, and Mass Media is actively working to create a unified electronic system for tracking information about citizens subject to mobilisation.

The fact that most Eastern European countries have closed their borders to Russians, while others have made it more difficult to obtain a visa, also helps to deter desertion. In July, Russian anti-war initiatives jointly appealed to European countries to grant asylum to Russian deserters. Shortly thereafter, the French National Court of Asylum ruled that Russian draft dodgers, conscientious objectors, and deserters should have the right to seek asylum in France. Germany made similar statements at the beginning of mobilisation. However, during the course of the war, Germany has granted asylum to just 55 Russian draft dodgers, while France denied asylum to the first deserter who submitted documents who was in hiding in Kazakhstan.

Nevertheless, fleeing to the West is likely to be an option primarily for the more educated within the ranks of the army and the officer corps, as was the case with the US Army during the Vietnam War. In fact, researchers from RAND Corporation have noted in their analysis of the success factors of anti-regime uprisings that officer desertion has a stronger impact on regime stability than rank-and-file desertion. This is all the more relevant for the Russian army, which has faced a serious shortage of officers and significant losses among the officer corps during the war.

Currently, Armenia and Kazakhstan, which are dependent on Russia and therefore not entirely safe, are the only options for Russian deserters. While those who do escape have established organisations such as 'Point of No Return,' which helps other soldiers to desert, they must do so with caution while in Kazakhstan and thus avoid communication with former comrades.

In conclusion, this set of constraints generally creates favourable conditions for the Russian military command to keep soldiers on the frontlines. However, psychological pressure, the high casualty rate, and fatigue of the second year of war may ultimately outweigh the fear of repression and the sense of hopelessness, bringing the 'breaking point' ever closer.