Why Ukrainian Soldiers Desert and Switch to the LDPR’s Side

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard



Ukrainian soldiers continue to desert the war in the east of Ukraine. Some deserters don’t simply leave their units, but also run across the frontline to the side of the enemy.

“Strana” found out why Ukrainian soldiers become deserters and switch sides.

Yury Butusov, the journalist and editor-in-chief of the “Censor.Net” website wrote about the causes of the now frequent cases of desertion.

“In May, in one month four servicemen of the UAF, one from the 36th marine brigades, two from the 14th brigade, and one from the 30th brigade crossed the frontline towards the enemy. So they are deserters.

This is how the ‘switching season’ has turned out.

It is the result of a shortage, which is filled up by ‘gastarbeiters’. When the shortage at the frontline reaches 60-70%, then there isn’t much choice. Such ‘switchers’ sit, drink alcohol, have bad discipline, clash, are dissatisfied with everything, but they aren’t removed because even they can be useful for something. For example, 35-year-old Vitaly Chmel from Nikolaev, from the 36th brigade, went into the UAF in August 2016, and now he deserted his family in Nikolaev and decided to become a Russian television star. He takes part in the enemy’s television programs,” wrote Yury Butusov on his Facebook page.

The fact that the problem indeed very acute is confirmed by the number of open criminal proceedings concerning military personnel.

However, Article 408 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine – “Desertion” – is used rather infrequently. But the number of military officers brought to responsibility under Article 407 of the Criminal Code – “Unauthorised leaving of a military unit” – is off the scale.

According to Article 408 of the Criminal Code, desertion is shall be punishable by imprisonment for a term of 2 to 5 years; desertion with weapons or of a group of persons upon their prior conspiracy shall be punishable by imprisonment for a term of 5 to 10 years; and if it is done in the conditions of martial law or in a fighting situation – from 5 to 12 years.

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In the register of court decisions we counted dozens of judicial proceedings in cases of the evasion of fighters from service. Approximately a quarter of cases concern desertion.

It is interesting that most of the court documents concerning the desertion of fighters are closed to the public. This is usually practiced when desertion is associated with circumstances that can strike a blow to the image of the Armed Forces of Ukraine: the use of weapons during desertion and the murder of colleagues; having non-statutory relations and switching to the side of the enemy.

In 2017 in Ukraine 468 criminal proceedings on the facts of the desertion of Ukrainian military personnel were initiated. This is nearly 9% more than in 2016. This was reported by UNN with reference to the information of the Prosecutor-General’s office.

In general, from the 468 registered criminal proceedings under Article 408 (desertion) of the Criminal Code of Ukraine, 19 were closed to the public. Thus, on the territory of Donetsk region 49 proceedings concerning desertion were initiated, and 6 were closed off. In the Lugansk region 9 criminal proceedings were initiated, and none in the past year were closed.

During 2016 in total 430 criminal proceedings concerning desertion were initiated in Ukraine, 47 of which were closed to the public.

According to the sources of “Strana”, among the officers and soldiers of the UAF in the zone of the Operation of United Forces, desertion has plagued the Ukrainian army since the very beginning of the war in the east of Ukraine.

“Desertion has always been a problem, since 2014. In any unit of the UAF there are some dozens of deserters, they are simply registered as having ‘voluntarily left’ the unit. This is a softer article [of the Criminal Code – ed], but they are actually the same as deserters. Now the majority of those who signed a contract are those who weren’t able to establish themselves in the rear. 80% of today’s contract employees are the unemployed youth from villages. Current contract employees now in army are really called ‘gastarbeiters’, and not fighters. These gastarbeiters first seek to quickly come to the frontline. Because the standard salary of the contract employee is supplemented by the ‘fighting’ wage. But after having arrived to the frontline, ‘gastarbeiters’ suddenly understand that here they can be killed at any time. That’s why the majority of them suddenly ‘fall ill’, others start to urgently have ill parents and ‘dying grandmothers with grandfathers’. In general, after quite a short time 80% of ‘gastarbeiters’ try to sneak away in any way. Half of them manage to do it in the lawful way, the others remain as ‘ballast’. They shirk in every way everything that is dangerous,” said the sergeant Aleksey V.

According to senior officer N., the motivation of fighters in the units operating at the frontline, to put it mildly, is not exactly high.

“In units the motivated fighters, as a rule, are the soldiers who have been fighting in the ATO since the first years. Unfortunately, only a few of them remain – many, having served for two, three, four years, left for demobilisation. Motivated veterans make up the backbone of any unit – generally the whole army leans on them. The others are contract servicemen from a new wave, people who came to the army for money – for not a big, but stable salary. ‘Gastarbeiters’ don’t have any ideological motivation – they don’t care about who they fight and where. No one has any illusions why these people were unemployed in the rear – many have criminal records, they have problems with alcohol and drugs. In the second and third echelons of defense they still somehow manage to be kept ‘on a lead’. Having come to the frontline, especially when the fighting starts to be violent, they start writing official reports about transfers to the rear or start to be ‘ill’. If it is impossible for you to sneak away, they can switch to the separatists along with their weapons, it is a fact. It is good if leave without opening fire. There were cases when ‘gastarbeiters’ left for separatists and thus killed their comrades. Such cases occurred after fighters got drunk on the frontline and staged skirmishes among themselves,” admitted the officer.

There was an acute shortage of staff in the UAF since the first days of war. But in 2014-2015 this problem was solved at the expense of several waves of mobilisation, the last of which was sent home as early as 2016.

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After this, according to unofficial data, the shortage of fighters in active units amounted to 30 to 40% of the regular quantity.

Most of soldiers and officers explain this “hole” by economic reasons – a low wage. On the frontline the salary of soldiers and sergeants totals, with all extra payments, from 11,000 to 14,000 hryvnia. For officers – from 13,000 to 25,000-30,000 hryvnia, depending on the position. But by going to Poland to earn money it is possible to receive the same and even more money, thus without putting one’s life at risk. And for those who wants to go to the frontline for the sake of earning money, this is a justification.

In addition to this, fighters also say the frequent delays of payments of “fighting” extra payments, bad living conditions, incompetence, and the boorish attitude of commanders towards subordinates, and non-statutory relationships are problems.

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