Ukraine war: Russian deserters keep fleeing abroad to avoid fighting

11 months ago 49

Nikita glances around, afraid he might get caught. The young Russian has drawn his hood deep over his face and is wearing is an inconspicuous outfit. Nikita, which is not his real name, has spent the last few months living in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi.

Nikita was studying in the Russian capital Moscow until February. He'd signed a contract with the Russian army, which said the defense ministry would pay for his degree and ensure he had got a place to live at the student dormitory. In return, he promised to serve three years in the Russian army. Arrangements like these are not uncommon in Russia.

Russian soldiers are seen carrying heavy luggage near a train in Wolgograd regionRussian men have been drafted from across the entire country Image: dpa/AP/picture alliance

"At the time, I signed the contract out of stupidity," he told DW. "Many things were not clear to me. Okay, I thought, I'll waste three years in the army, but I'll get a degree in return."

When Nikita received a draft notice, he decided to quit the army. The military, however, refused his request and offered a compromise.

"They transferred me to a command center where I was supposed to help the commander with the paperwork," Nikita recalled. "In September I got another job working with military technology and was tasked with repelling the enemy in case of an attack."

Nikita realized he could be sent to fight in Ukraine at any moment, so he decided to flee Russia to neighboring Georgia. "I didn't want to go to war, he told DW. "Escaping was my only chance." Nikita was well aware of the risk of deserting. "I will have to hide from Russia for the rest of my life, I will never be able to return," he said. "I'm not afraid of dying or ending up in prison, I just don't want to kill people."

Deserters on trial

There are many more who share Nikita's predicament. Human rights activists say over a 1,000 court cases have been initiated against alleged Russian deserters.

Grigory Swerdlin of the Russian non-governmental organization Idite Lesom, or Get Lost, told DW he thinks the real number of Russian deserters is far higher. Swerdlin's group helps conscientious objectors flee Russia.

He says some men are afraid of being mobilized, while others had been to the frontlines and no longer wanted to fight. "We get lots of reports about how chaotic the frontline is," he told DW. "Sometimes, soldiers don't know where the commanders are, some tell us that they were abandoned in the open field, without any guidance."

"No one teaches the recruits anything, and the only training consists of once firing a machine gun," he added.

Last fall in particular, when the Russian mobilization got underway, many draftees took to social media to post videos about abuses suffered at boot camps and along the frontlines.

Igor Sandzhiev endured such abuse as well. The 46-year-old construction worker, who now lives in Uralsk in western Kazakhstan, wants to make his ordeal public.


Last fall, Sandzhiev was told to report to the military, supposedly to check his personal details. When he appeared at the office, however, Sandzhiev received orders to attend boot camp that same evening, in preparation for combat in Ukraine a few weeks later.

Why are young Russians fleeing to Georgia?

Sandzhiev felt like he'd walked into trap and decided to flee the Russia. "It was all or nothing: I thought either I will go to prison for many years for leaving the military unit, or I will die somewhere in Ukraine," he recalled. "But I'd rather go to prison, I don't want to take a risk, I don't want to play this lottery called war that President Putin is running."

A lottery, he added, that can end fatally. After all, according to media reports, the war in Ukraine has already led to tens of thousands of Russian deaths, although the figures cannot be independently verified.

Many of the men who were mobilized following President Putin's decree have families. Those Russians who volunteered to fight, meanwhile, did so expecting lucrative wages, especially if they hailed from poorer regions. Sandzhiev, who is originally from Russia's southern Republic of Kalmykia, confirmed this.

He told DW that job prospects there were limited and "wages are withheld." "For many, going to war is the only chance to supplement their income, as some might have a child about to go to university, while another may have taken out a mortgage, or needs to buy a car," he added.

Sandzhiev initially fled to Belarus, where, according to his account, he was picked up by police and returned to the boot camp near Volgograd, Russia. Then, he made his way to Uralsk, Kazakhstan, where he applied for asylum.

His application was rejected, however, with the court in question ruling that he doesn't meet the criteria for refugee status. Instead, Sandzhiev received a six-month suspended sentence for illegally crossing the border. His attempt at appealing the sentence failed. Now, he could be deported to Russia.

Scores of Russians wait in line in Almaty, Kazakhstan, to apply for refugee statusScores of Russians are applying for refugee status in KazakhstanImage: Madija Torebaewa/DW

Caught between a rock and a hard place

Sandzhiev's case is no exception, says Denis Zhivago, deputy director of the International Bureau for Human Rights in Kazakhstan. More than twenty Russians are waiting for their asylum applications to be processed.

"These people did not cross the border illegally, they are in Kazakhstan legally, but some are wanted [in Russia]," Zhivago told DW. "Others have had travel restrictions imposed on them, they are trying to find ways to reach third countries."

Sandzhiev told DW he's not very optimistic about his future and that either "prison or war in Ukraine await me." He said Russian state media is telling Russians "there is a shortage of personnel on the frontlines and men of working age should fight."

Nikita's future is similarly uncertain. He feels unsafe in Georgia, "not because people here are bad or anything, Georgians don't treat me badly because I am Russian, but I do still fear the Russian state." Sometimes, he said, he is haunted by nightmares "in which my old boss comes and knocks on the door and says: Come with me, I found you."

In any case, both Sandzhiev and Nikita want to remain outside of Russia for as long as they can.

This article was translated from German.

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