Russia Seeks To Stop Desertions From Military – OpEd


The Russian anti-war “Go Through the Forest” project has declared February 29th the Day of the Deserter, to change the image of those who flee from the ranks of the Russian army in Ukraine from traitors and weaklings as the Kremlin wants people to believe and to show that leaving the ranks is “an action of bravery and lover for one’s country.”

On this occasion, activists involved in promoting desertion and then protecting those who do have provided perhaps the most comprehensive picture yet of the rising tide of desertion and the ways the military and the FSB are fighting it (

Grigory Sverdlin, who organized a homeless shelter in Russia before fleeing the country after the start of the war, is the founder of the “Go Through the Forest” project.  He says his group has been able to help 520 deserters, of whom approximately 70 percent have fled abroad while the remainder are mostly in hiding inside Russia.

Since the start of the war, his group has received inquiries from more than 24,000 soldiers, of which 2086 involves issues of desertion and the illegal crossing of the Russian state border. The highest number of such desertion questions – 284 — came in January 2024. A year earlier, his group received only 28. 

Perhaps significantly, approximately half of these potential deserts are men who signed on as professional soldiers and have either been horrified by what is going on at the front or are outraged that they have not been given the leave that they were promised and that Russian law requires.

The activists also provide statistics on the types of crimes those the authorities catch, with charges short of desertion more common because they are easy to prosecute and get convictions. The FSB and the military command, they add, now try to keep those who try to desert in their units because they need the men and because where punishment is informal and often brutal.

Those interested in desertion face far greater obstacles now than they did a year earlier, the activists say; and that fact may depress official statistics somewhat. But interest in desertion is clearly rising as Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its third year.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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