“The position of the Strategic Missile Forces command is that everyone serving in the troops are happy with everything, they like everything, but in reality, they don’t let anyone resign and don’t let anyone transfer,” wrote serviceman Denis Leonov in a social media post on October 10, 2019.
The post went viral on the Russian social network VKontakte. Upon further investigation, Hromadske’s partner outlet Novaya Gazeta discovered that Denis Leonov was not alone and that a number of contract servicemen in the Russian Armed Forces are continuing their military service against their will.
Leonov wrote that he is “a lieutenant in the Strategic Missile Forces who firmly decided to leave the Russian Armed Forces and completely give up military service.” Attached was a separate photo of a very young man holding a sign that says “SOS.” He then went on to explain that at his division command, he had been informed that it was impossible to resign “just like that,” unless it was due to a criminal offense.
Although Denis Leonov could not be reached for comment, Novaya Gazeta spoke to several other lieutenants from the Armed Forces who claim that they are unable to resign from their posts and believe that this is a widespread problem.
After some of them tried to break their contracts, they and their family members faced threats and intimidation, ranging from criminal prosecution to the lieutenants in question being banned from leaving their garrisons. These are their stories.
Officers in the Russian army, air force and navy serve on a contract basis, although there is a mandatory 12-month draft for male citizens aged 18 to 27. While there is no official ban on the termination of military contracts, experts say that there is a “verbal order” from top state officials on maintaining the size of the contract army.
As of January 2018, a decree from President Vladimir Putin upped the number of people serving in the Russian Armed Forces to over 1.9 million, of which over one million are military personnel. Global Firepower’s 2019 Military Strength ranking considers the Russian Army second most powerful in the world, just behind the United States and ahead of China. For comparison, their figures put the number of U.S. military personnel at over two million. Official data regarding the army is often inaccessible to the public, but Novaya Gazeta believes that about 250,000 of these people are officers.
Meanwhile, a lack of legal clarity makes it possible for higher-ups to simply not sign the requests from those who want to leave the army. Some officers claim they waited years before receiving approval in response to their requests and/or letters sent to the Prosecutor’s Office and Ministry of Defense.
In April 2019, President Vladimir Putin announced that the draft would sooner or later be a thing of the past, but adequate financing and time was still needed. But during a rare interview in September 2019, Russia’s Secretary of Defense Sergei Shoigu, stated that theoretically, canceling compulsory military service is possible, but this wouldn’t be the right decision.
“Bribery, blackmail and extortion”
In 2014, Viktor Dey entered the Peter the Great Military Academy of Strategic Missile Forces in Moscow. After studying there for four years, he realized that he did not want to join the army. Six months before graduation, Viktor filled out an application to willingly withdraw early, but he was not released and had to finish his studies.
After graduation, Viktor was assigned to the Yuryansk eighth missile division in the Kirov region in western Russia. He arrived bearing the rank of lieutenant but immediately announced that he intended to resign and wrote another request. However, it was rejected once again.
“At this point, I went to a lawyer for advice. He said that since they don’t want to let me resign on my own, we’ll do it a different way. Servicemen are not allowed to take part in any entrepreneurial activity and so we declared my status as an individual entrepreneur. I wrote a request again, indicating that I was engaged in entrepreneurial activity and didn’t want to fulfill the terms of the contract I signed. This didn’t produce results either,” Viktor tells Novaya Gazeta.
The division’s leadership immediately began to try and persuade Viktor to stay in the armed forces – then the persuasion turned into threats. “They even called my parents, saying: ‘your son doesn’t want to serve and we will put him in jail for this,’” Viktor recalls.
“Threats came to me from the head of the faculty. Now my brother is studying at his Academy. The [faculty] head came and while we were talking he wrote on a piece of paper ‘if you don’t stay, I will expel your brother,” Viktor continues, showing Novaya Gazeta’s journalist the note and then throwing it away.
“I replied that my decision would not change,” says Viktor. “During another conversation, they snuck in the phrase ‘Bribery, blackmail and extortion – any means necessary so that you continue to serve’.”
Viktor’s superiors argued that the decision to deny his request was not their own. “They said they wouldn’t mind because they didn’t need the headache,” he says. “But there is some kind of unspoken rule or instruction from the Ministry of Defense directly – don’t let [anyone] go, especially young lieutenants.”
Now, Viktor is working in a different field but is still listed as an active serviceman and sometimes appears in the division. Not showing up isn’t an option: if he is absent from service for over 10 days he could face criminal charges.
Viktor has appealed to military officials of various ranks. He made some of these documents available to Novaya Gazeta, demonstrating that nearly all of the recipients passed the task down, refused to consider the reasons for his resignation or simply did not answer.
“Why did you write? We’re all getting screwed here”
Egor Glambotsky studied at the same military academy as Viktor Dey and also found himself realizing that he had chosen the wrong career path. For him, quitting proved to be just as difficult. After being persuaded to finish out his diploma, he was sent to serve in the 42nd Missile Division in the city of Nizhny Tagil, where he was similarly bullied after filing a resignation request.
“At first they called me and scared me with transfers to somewhere far away: they said they would send me to Kytlym, where there is no internet ... They called [my] parents and said ‘your son is earning himself a criminal case.’ My father and mother are military. I warned them and asked them not to react,” Egor says.
Egor’s request is still pending despite his appeals to the Ministry of Defense and the Prosecutor’s Office. In one of the responses from the Strategic Missile Forces, his superiors told him:
“The Ministry of Defense hasn’t considered my appeal yet but they called me to the division and said: ‘Why did you write? We’re all getting screwed here and you still won’t be dismissed’,” Egor says. “They say that this is an unofficial instruction from the authorities: ‘You are appointed by the Minister of Defense and no one will write to them, nobody here needs this.’”
“The Ministry of Defense doesn’t care about you”
Following a viral post on the social network VKontakte that gained 36 thousand views, Medical Service Lieutenant Stanislav Mazepin reached out to Novaya Gazeta himself. He had been trying to resign from the Armed Forces for several months after his graduation from the S.M. Kirov Military Medical Academy earlier this year.
Screenshot from social network VKontakte reads: "A serviceman is being held at the Gusev military base against his will".
Not only were officers of the 79th Guard Motor Rifle Brigade in Gusev, Kaliningrad Region (where he was stationed) preventing him from resigning, they were also restricting his movement and making physical threats.
According to Stanislav Mazepin’s post on social media, the commander of the military unit had threatened to accept the position on his behalf without his consent and was restricting his free time, preventing him from going home and forcefully holding him against his will. He also said that Mazepin’s request for dismissal could be “accidentally lost” and his “dismissal from army service could be put off indefinitely.”
Stanislav also wrote that “the head of the military unit’s medical service threatened to shut me somewhere down in a basement by force, without food and water,” while another senior officer threatened “physical violence [and] serious bodily injury if I don’t obey him” and demanded payment “for the inconvenience [I had] caused him.”
Stanislav tells Novaya Gazeta that he wrote the post while “imprisoned” in the military unit. His social media posts also included video, audio and photographic evidence that military police were specifically assigned to follow him, preventing him from moving around or being alone.
Although he is no longer being held against his will, Stanislav has yet to receive his military release and is now fighting his case in court.
“Outwardly the army is trying to comply with the law”
While exact statistics on the number of resignations from the Armed Forces (successful or otherwise) are not made public, a lawyer working with servicemen who have found themselves in this situation spoke with Novaya Gazeta on conditions of anonymity and said that he has a lot of clients, ranging from junior officers to people with twenty years of military service.
According to the lawyer, Russian legislation provides a special status for military personnel so that they are not granted the freedom of choice of profession. In addition, the law “On military duty and military service,” is somewhat vague and does not specify the right to resignation.
“The law is craftily made, they can release [you] or not without breaking it,” the lawyer explains. “Now a paper has arrived, literally this month, making it possible to dismiss lieutenants only by order of the Ministry of Defense. Of course, no one wants to deal with that … in the end, each case is decided by individual people.”
Groups on social networks like VKontakte where military lawyers offer “resignation support services” are also evidently popular. One such group offering free “judicial and legal defense, moral and psychological support for resignations from army or military colleges” consists of over three thousand members. The group itself is filled with video reviews from satisfied “retirees” and reposts from servicemen sharing stories about trying to leave the army – the majority of whom are holding signs saying “SOS” and “I am not a slave,” and complaining about the intense pressure.
Screenshot from social network VKontakte "Help to servicemen" group
Novaya Gazeta’s editors requested information about resignations from the Armed Forces to the Main Military Prosecutor’s Office and the Ministry of Defense’s Department of Information and Mass Communication.
While the Prosecutor’s Office did not respond, the Ministry of Defense Department said they are “interested in keeping the most motivated and competent specialists in military service, who have successfully completed combat training programs.”
According to a representative from the Ministry of Defense, they carefully check the motivations and reasoning prompting military personnel to break their contracts on an individual basis. “There aren’t any ‘internal’ orders to prohibit the release of servicemen who are, of their own accord, performing military service under contract at the Russian Ministry of Defense,” the Ministry added.
The Ministry of Defense also emphasized that there have been no complaints about incidents of “persecution” and “harassment” of military personnel, “let alone” their family members, for wanting to resign.
/Adapted by Eilish Hart, with materials from Aleksandra Dzhorzhyevich of Novaya Gazeta. Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange.