23.03.23 Mobilisation Review

The Partial Criminalisation: Russian courts prefer handing down suspended sentences to soldiers so that they can be sent back to the front

According to an investigation carried out by Mediazona, there have been 536 criminal cases opened against Russian military personnel since the announcement of ‘partial mobilisation’ in September 2022. In approximately half of those cases, sentences have already been handed down. The Russian authorities have actively disseminated information about these trials and sentences among the army, while at the same time keeping this hidden from the general public. The majority of cases have involved charges under Articles 337 (unauthorised abandonment of a unit), Article 332 (failure to comply with orders), and Article 338 (desertion) of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. There has been a rapid surge in the number of cases, with figures reaching a record high in March. In instances where soldiers have gone AWOL, it is common for courts to hand down suspended sentences in order to force them to return to the front. Soldiers who directly express their unwillingness to fight in the war, rather than fleeing, are charged with disobeying orders, and the number of defendants accused of such crimes is also on the rise. It should be noted that they have all been sentenced to real prison terms.

The number of cases against refuseniks and those who went AWOL began to increase over the summer, but the majority were only initiated after the announcement of ‘partial mobilisation’. In September, the punishments for many of the articles according to which refuseniks were being convicted were made stricter. For example, the maximum sentence for ‘arbitrarily leaving a unit’ was doubled from 5 to 10 years. Mediazona's investigation reveals that the first trials brought using the updated articles began in November, and as of March 21, 536 criminal cases had been opened against 548 soldiers. Article 337 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation on the ‘unauthorised abandonment of a unit’ has been used in the majority of cases (471), followed by Article 332 on ‘non-execution of an order’ (25), Article 334 on ‘beating a commander’ (21), and Article 338 on ‘desertion’ (14). Sentences have already been handed down in half of the 247 cases. However, it has been difficult to discern the specifics of the court proceedings and the subsequent punishments. 

Information regarding the trials and sentencing often remains inaccessible to the general public. It is, however, actively disseminated among the army. The closed nature of these trials has been attributed to the Ministry of Defense's decree on confidentiality. Out of the 247 completed trials, there are only 25 instances where the sentences have been published by the military courts. In a further 44 cases, the sentences were published in the courts’ press releases. However, even in the aforementioned press releases, only brief explanatory statements were provided, and details were withheld. Officials from the 224th garrison military court in St. Petersburg were quoted as telling Mediazona that texts related to the sentences were designated as ‘For Official Use’ only, or ‘Confidential’. 

Moreover, The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation has ceased publishing statistics on the convictions for offences against military service, stating that such information may pose a risk to the security of the Russian Federation. However, there may be another reason underlying this secrecy. According to the results of certain surveys, just fewer than a third of Russians support the prosecution of those seeking to avoid mobilisation. Therefore, instead of expressing indignation, the Russian public is likely to react with sympathy to these cases. It is thus obvious that the story of Ruslan Akhmetov (as told by Medizona), who participated in the ‘special military operation,’ was injured, and, after receiving treatment, did not return to his unit in Buryatia, but instead stayed at home to care for his sick father, is very likely to elicit compassion.

At the same time, it has become common practice within military units to conduct both high-profile arrests and seek the conviction of refuseniks. These sentences are frequently announced directly within the military unit (with the trial sometimes held on-site as well). For example, during one such trial in Tula, the sentence hearing was attended by the command staff of the military unit and over 300 conscripts.

There are different reasons why soldiers may leave their military unit; for example, some cite family reasons or the need to visit relatives. Such excuses usually result in a suspended court sentence. However, if a soldier leaves their unit to avoid taking part in the war, the likelihood of a prison sentence increases substantially, and the verdict largely depends on the length of his absence from his unit. The typical sentence for those who are AWOL for up to 10 days is typically one or two years, and 60% of these sentences are suspended. In contrast, if a soldier is absent for more than a month (out of the 471 soldiers convicted, 249 left their unit for 30 days or more), the prison term may increase to a maximum of seven years (such a sentence was handed down by a court in Kamchatka). Nonetheless, receiving a suspended sentence is not necessarily the best possible outcome, as the accused will be sent back to the front.

During the autumn, there was an uptick in the use of Article 332 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation concerning ‘non-execution of an order’. Cases of soldiers refusing to follow orders multiplied, resulting in the punishment for breach of this article being toughened, with the maximum sentence increased to 10 years imprisonment. Prior to this, in order to initiate legal proceedings under Article 332, significant harm to the interests of the military had to be proven. The situation has now changed, so that a refusal to carry out orders during an ‘active armed conflict’ or refusal to participate in ‘military or armed conflicts’ is enough to warrant prosecution. Mediazona was able to obtain details of 7 out of 25 criminal cases prosecuted under Article 332. These involved 13 individuals, all of whom received real prison sentences ranging from 2 to 4 years in a penal colony.

Further, there were 14 cases referred to the courts under the ‘desertion’ article, three of which resulted in a sentence. Prosecution under this article is used much less frequently than the ‘AWOL article’, as it is more challenging to prove the fact that someone did not want to serve in the army than it is to simply demonstrate their absence from their unit. The most high-profile case involved eight individuals from Kaliningrad who fled their company in the self-proclaimed LPR. In fear of being sent to the front line, they returned home ‘to save their lives and health’, braving minefields to reach Russia. One of the individuals is now being held in a pre-trial detention centre as the alleged organiser behind this escape, while the rest remain in a military unit in the Moscow region. They face sentences ranging from 5 to 15 years in prison.

Prosecution under the article concerning ‘the act of using force against a commanding officer during the mobilisation period’ (part 3 of Article 334 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation) is also gaining practice. It has also seen an increase in its maximum sentence following the announcement of mobilisation, and now carries a prison sentence ranging from 5 to 15 years. According to Mediazona, there have been a total of 22 instances of this article being used to prosecute soldiers in military courts. In both Rostov-on-Don and Pskov, three separate individuals were accused of assaulting their commanding officers. As of this moment, verdicts have been handed down in 11 such cases.

Ultimately, it appears as though the number of individuals evading mobilisation has greatly outnumbered those who have been targeted by law enforcement. However, it is evidently impossible to obtain even an approximate estimate when it comes to these figures.