At least 1,000 Russian troops fighting Ukraine have gone awol in the past five months – more than in all of last year, British defence chiefs claim.
And, according to court papers, if they are found, most are reportedly punished with suspended sentences so that they can be sent back to the front line in the war.
Moscow’s military courts have dealt with 1,053 cases of soldiers absent without leave (awol) so far this year, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said, citing “credible research” by independent Russian journalists.
A year and three months to the day since Russian president Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, British defence officials said: “Russia’s military has struggled to enforce discipline in its ranks throughout its operations in Ukraine, but its issues have highly likely [sic] worsened following the forced mobilisation of reservists since October 2022.”
In September, Mr Putin announced a partial mobilisation of 300,000 military reservists for the war.
The call-up prompted hundreds of thousands of men to flee the country. Outbound flights were full and neighbouring countries received large influxes.
Soon afterwards, Mr Putin toughened up penalties for desertion and refusal to fight, making the offences punishable by up to 10 years in prison, or 15 years for voluntary surrender to enemy forces.
But first-time offenders may be exempted from criminal liability “if he took measures for his release, returned to his unit or place of service and did not commit other crimes while in captivity”, the new law says.
Within weeks of the boost to Russian numbers, UK defence chiefs concluded many of the newly mobilised soldiers were poorly equipped, possibly with arms in a “barely usable” condition.
Earlier this year, the MoD suggested Russian troops were using shovels for hand-to-hand combat in Ukraine because of an ammunition shortage.
There were also reports from the battlefield of low morale among the troops, particularly among the new conscripts.
Russian troops were said to have fled, some ending up begging for food from villagers.
Western analysts suggested Russia’s slow advance on Ukrainian territory was blamed at least in part on the poor morale, lack of preparation and shoddy equipment.
The defence chiefs said the Kremlin had failed to improve morale, saying: “Russia’s efforts to improve discipline have forced on making examples of defaulters, and promoting patriotic zeal, rather than addressing the root causes of soldiers’ disillusionment.”
A captured soldier spoke of “execution squads” for deserters.
In a poll earlier this month, more than half of Russians said they expected another round of mobilisation in the next three months, although the Kremlin has denied it is planning a fresh mobilisation.
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