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How One Crusading Lawyer Battles For The Rights Of Russians Sent To Fight In Ukraine

Soldiers wounded in the Ukraine invasion shake hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during his visit in May to the Mandryk Central Military Clinical Hospital.
Soldiers wounded in the Ukraine invasion shake hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during his visit in May to the Mandryk Central Military Clinical Hospital.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, several social media groups have sprung up where members of the Russian military can -- anonymously or otherwise - talk about the problems they face due to their participation in the war in Ukraine and ask for help from a lawyer.

Their complaints reflect the current poor situation in the Russian Army. Many Russian soldiers have never been rotated home after more than six months; combat payments have been delayed; and volunteers of the "special reserve" who signed a contract with a mysterious "authority" have been deprived of compensation for injuries.

As for those unfortunate enough to have been wounded in Crimea or the Belgorod region, the Russian authorities do not consider these areas to be included in the "special military operation," the euphemism the Kremlin insists on using when discussing the war in Ukraine, although there are explosions and shelling there, too.

Groups where lawyers offer help to military personnel are sometimes blocked by social media administrators, and some lawyers have been threatened.

"I get anonymous threats: 'We wrote a complaint against you to the FSB, to the prosecutor's office, get ready to come, they will summon you now, a task force has left for you,'" Moscow lawyer Maksim Grebenyuk, the author of the Military Ombudsman Telegram channel, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service.

In August 2022, a court in Moscow sentenced Vladimir Vorontsov, the author of a similar Telegram channel dedicated to the police, to five years in prison for extortion. When Grebenyuk hears that RFE/RL's Russian Service once interviewed Vorontsov, he sadly jokes, "Will they put me in jail now, too?"

A "prone to betrayal" stamp in the military ID of a Russian soldier who declined to fight in Ukraine.
A "prone to betrayal" stamp in the military ID of a Russian soldier who declined to fight in Ukraine.

In fact, Grebenyuk may indeed have problems because of his professional activities: He is currently representing a serviceman on trial in Ryazan, who, for refusing to participate in the war, received a stamp on his military ID saying: "Prone to betrayal, lies, and cheating." According to Grebenyuk, after the trial began, a representative of the commander of the unit where his client served wrote a complaint to the military court calling for Grebenyuk to be charged with "discrediting Russia's armed forces."

'There Are More Complaints Now'

Grebenyuk says that compared to March and April, when he gave his first media interviews, he now receives many more requests from military personnel and their relatives. The leading regions where the appeals come from are the North Caucasus and Russia's Far East.

"The number of requests has increased. A lot of legal-service agreements have been concluded. Now I receive about 20 to 30 messages a day, of which about five to 10 go into consultations. We conclude a legal-service agreement once or twice a day. This is not counting consultations and simple correspondence. There is also a lot of such communication. If the issue is simple, I try to consult for free, if possible," he says.

Complaints about compensation for injuries not being paid are now the most common.

"I tell the military member: You have a difficult case. There are no medical documents. Let's go to court, and through the court and medical examination let's prove that there was some kind of diagnosis, [that] the injury was from the 'special operation,'" Grebenyuk says. "Now there are a lot more military personnel and their families with such complaints."

In Grebenyuk's group on the VKontakte social network, such complaints appear every day.

On the morning of May 16, the quiet village of Mayske near Dzhankoi in Crimea awoke to the sound of "pops." As it turned out, ammunition was exploding at a Russian Army depot on a former farm. The inhabitants of the village were evacuated, the roads leading to it were blocked, and railway traffic between Dzhankoi and Kerch was stopped. The Russian Defense Ministry declared it was Ukrainian sabotage, although Kyiv until recently refused to take responsibility for this or any other such incidents in Crimea.

Russian soldiers in the Kherson region on May 19.
Russian soldiers in the Kherson region on May 19.

"Good evening! I am a member of the 'special military operation' in Ukraine who was injured by shrapnel after the explosion in the village of Mayske (Crimea). Am I entitled to a presidential payment?" one service member complained in Grebenyuk's group. "Immediately after the injury, I was taken to a civilian hospital in Dzhankoi for an operation, then to Simferopol, and then to a hospital in Grozny. I only learned about the payment and medical paperwork in Grozny. All the doctors say that it was necessary to get a certificate of injury in Dzhankoi, but it was like a civilian hospital and they just gave me a discharge summary."

More experienced soldiers in the comments section answer that the certificate does not play a major role: Since he was injured in Crimea, which the Russian authorities consider part of Russia, he is not entitled to compensation.

Grebenyuk agrees.

"Of course, in this case, it will be problematic for him to receive [compensation] because it's not clear why he was injured. Most likely, he was just guarding this munitions depot. In addition, it matters whether his unit is a participant in the 'special military operation,' Grebenyuk says.

"For example, sailors from the sunken cruiser Moskva were also not recognized as participants in the 'special operation' because they were not in the waters of Ukraine -- that is, on its territory. Then they were retroactively included in the list of military units that were involved in the 'special operation.' They were then paid all the payments -- for injuries, for the death of military personnel, in those cases where the death was recognized," he says.

He explains that, officially, the "special military operation" is only taking place in the parts of Ukraine initially controlled by Kyiv and the separatist territories in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Fire and smoke billow from a munitions depot near the village of Timonovo outside Belgorod on August 18.
Fire and smoke billow from a munitions depot near the village of Timonovo outside Belgorod on August 18.

"But this is only its name, it does not mean that the injury must necessarily be received there. If a unit is involved in the 'special operation,' but at some point enters the Belgorod region...or is stationed in Crimea, then its soldiers should also be entitled to payments and social guarantees. But if they are not included in the list of units participating in the [invasion], and the injury happened inside Russia, then he is most likely not entitled to compensation," Grebenyuk explains.

Finding out if a unit is listed as participating in the "special military operation" is difficult, he says, but it's possible to do it through a lawyer's request.

There are some other complaints related to the navy that military personnel post in Grebenyuk's social media group. Given the shortage of infantry, the Russian command is apparently trying to "plug holes" at the front lines with sailors.

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"Guys, have there been cases when sailors were forcibly expelled from ships for the 'special operation' (to the infantry)? They say either we go there or we'll be fired. I'm more concerned with what's going in the Northern Fleet," a Russian sailor wrote on September 5 in Grebenyuk's group.

On September 6, Ukrainian journalist Roman Tsymbalyuk said on Facebook that the Russian Navy couldn't find enough personnel to form a crew for a large anti-submarine ship, the Admiral Chabanenko, which was being refitted in Severodvinsk. This was because the main requirement was that sailors sign a document saying they were prepared to participate in the "special military operation," and because so many sailors had been used in combat operations as infantry, recruits were afraid to sign such a paper.

'Volunteers' And 'Vagnerites'

Much more accommodating are the "volunteers," including those who are recruited to participate in the war in the Russian regions under the Special Combat Army Reserve (BARS) program. They eagerly sign blank "contracts" without even receiving a copy, and then discover that the Russian state does not consider them military personnel and they are not entitled to social protection or bonuses for military personnel, such as preferential mortgages.

"Not one of these 'BARS guys' has shown me a signed contract yet. They sign blank contract forms with some kind of 'authority,' and no copy is returned to them. I'm helping one of them now: I just made requests to the military registration and enlistment office, to the military unit to which he was assigned there, so that they give us a contract and explain their status, which is unclear to me," Grebenyuk says.

"BARS was created under the auspices of the Defense Ministry, but it's not yet clear whether they have an organization, some kind of legal entity, what kind of structure it is, if it's part of the ministry. Most likely, they are not military personnel and do not have the right to social guarantees from the state."

According to Grebenyuk, volunteers recruited to fight in Ukraine through the private Vagner Group military contractor face the same problem.

"The status of the so-called 'Vagner PMC' is also unclear to me, and not only to me, but to many people. Recently, the mother of one 'Vagnerite' contacted me and said that he had died in Popasna (in eastern Ukraine), and she had not received any payments at all. Now I send lawyer's requests. I try to figure out if they still have something to do with the Ministry of Defense. If so, then they are entitled to social guarantees. If not, then most likely not."

An Offer You Shouldn't Refuse

A huge number of complaints and questions in the Military Ombudsman group are from soldiers who have become disillusioned with the war in Ukraine and no longer want to take part. The problem is that as soon as a contract soldier declares his unwillingness to fight, they stop paying him even the money that he has already earned.

  • "My husband's contract has expired. They don't want to send him home. How do you write an appeal to the prosecutor's office?"
  • "Please, tell me the process to resign correctly. Now I am in the hospital, but I will return to my unit and they will start sending me to [Ukraine], and if I refuse, referring to my health, will I be fired for [failing to fulfill the terms of the contract]?"
  • "Please describe the process: If they are going to fire me [for failing to fulfill the terms of the contract] for the refusal to leave for [Ukraine], what should I do to be fully provided with clothing, vacation?"

As Grebenyuk says, if a soldier refuses to participate in the war in Ukraine, he has little chance of getting what he has earned. On the other hand, he says, there hasn't been a single criminal case filed against a soldier for terminating the contract.

"As soon as they get there and, for example, come under fire, they can change their attitude to what is happening and decide to refuse further participation [in the operation]. After they refuse, they are very much limited in their rights, very noticeably, both servicemen and volunteers," Grebenyuk says.

"What matters is the location where a serviceman or volunteer refuses to participate in the 'special military operation.' If he is at a point of permanent deployment of a unit in Russia, then he's simply dismissed due to 'failure to fulfill the terms of the contract.' He violates the contract and to he is subject to early dismissal.

"Commanders, of course, are dealing with the servicemen, trying to explain that refusal can be criminally liable, but as of today, there are no criminal cases in Russia for refusing to participate in the 'special operation,'" he adds. "And if you are already in Ukraine, then a refusal there can threaten a number of adverse consequences. The media wrote a lot about them in connection with the camps in Bryanka, Krasny Luch, and other 'basements.' Such soldiers are often subjected to illegal imprisonment and violence."

In August, after numerous appeals by Grebenyuk, the camps for "refuseniks" in Krasny Luch and other places in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region were liquidated. There were rumors that the "500s" (army slang for those who refuse to participate in the war) in these camps are guarded and beaten by Vagner troops.

According to Grebenyuk, "refuseniks" turned to him for advice from the very beginning of the war. Now there are more such appeals, he says, but it is difficult to say whether this is due to the failures of the Russian Army in Ukraine, because the flow of complaints has increased in general.

Why do so many Russian military personnel want to terminate their contract? The answer to this question is also easy to find in the Military Ombudsman group: The army, in the face of a shortage of personnel, is fighting "wear and tear." Many soldiers and officers have not been on rotation from the very beginning of the invasion of Ukraine.

"Please tell me if my husband can be sent to serve at home from [Ukraine] if he has two small children (3 years, 4 months). A year ago, we moved to a new city, and my parents would come in turn to help with the children, but now I am alone with them. Maybe there are some privileges, laws, according to which the father of the children can be returned home to serve. He has been there since February," one soldier's wife asked.

Grebenyuk says that there is no legal way to demand leave for a participant in the "special military operation."

"This is a common problem. Unfortunately, I explain to family members of military personnel that there is no right to rotate. There are orders from the Defense Ministry that military personnel must not be on a mission for more than a year without leave. If there are any family circumstances -- a relative is seriously ill, if he has many children, for example, and he has several small children -- then a soldier can demand leave for family reasons, including from 'special operations,'" he says.

"And if there are no illnesses or preferential grounds for granting leave at a convenient time, then only the commanders decide when to replace a soldier," Grebenyuk says. "This is the exclusive right of the commanders. They, like the generals in the famous [1934 Soviet] film about [Vasily Ivanovich] Chapayev, 'move potatoes on the map,' and they determine who goes into battle, and who is replaced and rests. It is impossible to demand this by legal means."

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    Mark Krutov

    Mark Krutov is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service and one of the leading investigative journalists in Russia. He has been instrumental in the production of dozens of in-depth reports, exposing corruption among Russia's political elite and revealing the murky operations behind Kremlin-led secret services. Krutov joined RFE/RL in 2003 and has extensive experience as both a correspondent and a TV host.