The Russian independent media writes about deserting servicemen and Moscow’s “crisis propaganda”

People walk past a letter Z installation on display as part of decoration for Christmas and the New Year holidays in Moscow, Russia, 20 December 2022.
© EPA-EFE/MAXIM SHIPENKOV   |   People walk past a letter Z installation on display as part of decoration for Christmas and the New Year holidays in Moscow, Russia, 20 December 2022.

Russian servicemen sent to the frontline in Ukraine are trying to flee the war and dodge military service, and the authorities respond by putting them on trial, the Russian independent media writes. Independent journalists also look at the Kremlin’s response to the defeats sustained by the Russian army in Ukraine: it fashioned a “crisis propaganda”.

MEDIAZONA: “Cargo-500”. How Russian servicemen who refuse to fight in Ukraine are tried for going AWOL.

In Russia, the number of criminal investigations prosecuting the unwarranted leaving of military units is growing. This is the method used to prosecute troopers who won’t fight in Ukraine and leave the frontline, despite being threatened by their commanding officers. Overall, the investigations target contractors who refused to fight this spring and summer, although the first sentences have been issued in the case of people who went AWOL during the “period of mobilization”. Penalties have also been toughened. Mediazona tells the stories of military who managed to abandon their posts on the front, prior to the mobilization. One such story speaks of a 20-year-old paratrooper from Pskov deployed to Bucha at the start of the invasion, who fled to Ukraine together with some of his peers, and is now being investigated for leaving his military unit.

Paratroopers leaving the battlefield

Alexey completed the mandatory military service at 19 years of age and was assigned to the paratrooper unit no. 74268, out of Pskov. In the summer of 2021, he signed a contract with the Ministry of Defense, and was recruited as an artilleryman in a paratrooper unit. On February 24, he was in the vanguard that led the attack on Ukraine. Three days later, he was already in Bucha.

“Local residents were shooting at us to defend their settlement, we weren’t even fighting the army”, says Alexey, a corporal at the time”. […]

“Before leaving Bucha at the end of March, the army mined the doors, arguing this would be a gift for them”, Alexey also says. But that didn’t seem to bother him. “I didn’t care”.

Alexey is a man of few words. His answers are dry, and he claims this is due to the war he now militates against.

The first servicemen from his unit refused to fight at the start of April. At the time, paratroopers were given a 10-day leave for R&R in Belgorod. Later, they were informed they are due to be deployed to Kharkiv region. According to Alexey, it was around this time that three people went AWOL, hoping to flee the war. Those who stayed spent two weeks in the trenches near Izyum, and were later deployed to Donetsk region.

Alexey says he was involved in the attack on three settlements. The battle for Berestovoye war particularly intense. From two battalions of 700-800 soldiers, only a couple of hundred were still combat-ready by the end of that month. The others were either killed or wounded. During one particular attack, Alexey recalls, the shell fired from a 120-mm cannon exploded in the muzzle, killing the entire crew, four people in total, all his friends. “The scariest moment was when a ‘Grad’ missile hit our position. We had just started to retreat, had barely walked 20 meters”, the Russian serviceman recalls.

As early as this year’s spring and summer, many contract servicemen tried to leave Ukraine and never return to the frontline. A new term was coined to refer to them – “Cargo-500”, an analogy of code names “Cargo-300” (the military designation for the wounded) and Cargo-200 (the dead) previously used by the Russian army in the war in Afghanistan. The army’s General Staff would threaten soldiers with prison if they refused to fight, Alexey recalls, although commanding officers on the frontline claimed servicemen were free to write notifications expressing their refusal to fight.

The notifications did little to help, however, because they were never signed by the unit commanders. It appears they did nothing else but collect them. After the Russian army withdrew from Izyum, Ukrainians discovered a file with dozens of such notifications, in which Russian servicemen complained about physical and psychological fatigue.

Day by day, the corporal recalls, soldiers were promised reinforcements would soon arrive to replace them. In July, at the end of the battle, 40 people were offered leave. They went to Popasnaya, a town in the Luhansk region. A few soldiers decided not to return to the frontline. Alexey was one of them.

The Russian soldier says those who decided to stop fighting turned in their weapons, got back their IDs, hitched a ride to the Russian border and thus returned to their unit, in the Pskov region. […] “They asked us why we had come back. We said we turned in our equipment and came home. They shouted at us, asking who had given the order. They didn’t know what to do, they just kept us there”.

A few weeks later, the paratroopers packed up their gear and went home.

Alexey and his fellow troopers managed to return from the war relatively easy. Towards the middle of the summer, those who dodged combat started getting detained and imprisoned in basements or special camps. The servicemen were kept in cold, dark places in separatist territory, most likely guarded by mercenaries with the Wagner group. Here, they were forced and threatened to take up arms again, and the most adamant were beaten.

One such camp was located in Perevalsk, a settlement located 40 km from Luhansk, where hundreds of so-called “Cargo-500” had been detained. In August, the camp was disbanded, says lawyer Maxim Grebenyuk says, who represented servicemen refuseniks, after a few people managed to escape, returned to Russia and notified the Military Prosecutor’s Office and the Military Investigation department of the Russian Federation’s Investigative Committee. In fact, in November, the camp was reopened, and now it doesn’t hold contract servicemen, but mobilized people who refused to fight. Some of them were tortured and even threatened with execution, as they were suspected of having told the press about the detention conditions in the camp. […]

“In my opinion, the word of the year should be ‘Cargo-500’”, legal expert Sergey Voinov argues. “Some of them were detained by the police, who tried to send them back but failed. They would get back to Russia with the help of resourceful taxi drivers from Donetsk, who smuggled them across the border. The important thing was to reach their military unit and hand in their letter of resignation”.

After the mobilization was announced, resigning from the army is no longer an option: Putin’s decree on mobilization, which is still in effect, specifically forbids contract servicemen from resigning.

Contract servicemen who refuse to fight, the so-called ‘Cargo-500’, quickly felt the consequences of this decree. For instance, one group of troopers arrested in the Kharhiv region near the Russian border, shortly after the decree was published, were sent back to the frontline, threatened with criminal prosecution for desertion.

Alexey and the other men in his unit, who left the battlefield in mid-summer, were denied resignation. A few weeks later, they went home, and in September Alexey learned that a criminal investigation was opened against him for leaving the unit without permission.


Mediazona has examined the rulings of military courts since the start of 2022: over January-December, 948 AWOL cases were brought to court. Against the backdrop of the war, their number went up, particularly starting this summer. […]

The first cases of soldiers going AWOL “during the period of mobilization or martial law, in wartime or in conditions of military conflict or military operations” are now starting to flood military courts. Mediazona has identified 39 such cases in 21 regions of Russia. 19 people are put on trial under the most severe paragraph (5) in Article 337, which stipulates sanctions for leaving the military unit during the mobilization, ranging from 5 to 10 years in prison. […]

A military court from one region of Russia examined the case of Alexey, who was tried under the old article (prior to the mobilization decree). The Russian paratrooper remains an active serviceman. “They say I might have to get back to complete my military contract”. […]

RIDDLE: Crisis propaganda

Riddle writes about a new type of authoritarian communication

Starting February 2022, the Russian authorities initiated a large-scale information campaign with the aim of justifying the war against Ukraine and neutralizing potential protest-oriented attitudes. In addition to maintaining the legitimacy of authorities in the context of worsening living conditions for Russians, propaganda has systematically downplayed the value of human life on both sides of the conflict.

On the one hand, propaganda continues its efforts to justify civilian deaths on the ‘enemy’ side while, on the other, it explains the inevitability of fatalities on the propagandist’s side. The Russian information campaign has also conjured up a simplified picture of the world, which helps to find answers to potential difficult questions. According to researchers, the demand for such simplifications rises in crisis situations, and propaganda turns into a tool for mass-therapy through news.

However, Russian propaganda has had an Achilles’ heel right from the outset of the aggression in February: the war coverage by the Russian media built an expectation of imminent victory. The further the hostilities dragged on, the more difficult it became to construct an ‘image of victory’, especially given that the Ukrainian successes were associated with strikes against targets with high symbolic value, be it the Moskva warship or the Crimean Bridge. The unattainability of victory presumably generated increased frustration and a wave of rising negative emotions. Once control over these emotions is lost, they could be directed not only at external targets, but also ones within the political system.

If there is no image of victory or a clear path to reach it, such a situation also potentially undermines the foundations of ontological security, essential for maintaining the aggressor’s internal political legitimacy. To explain why there has been no quick and easy victory, Russian propagandists had not only to revise the image of the enemy, but also to reshape the narratives of the conflict. After that change, it was no longer a war with Ukraine, but an existential struggle for survival with the ‘collective West’.

And yet even this adaptation of the narrative proved insufficient, especially in light of the strategic successes of the Ukrainian offensive in the Kharkiv region and then in Kherson. The dissonance between the real scale of the crisis and the picture painted by propaganda for the Russian audience reached a point where political tasks could no longer be solved by information methods known from the past. These events led to a crisis of propaganda as a genre of communication. For the first time since the beginning of the war, pro-Kremlin communicators had to move beyond propaganda methodology and enter the realm of crisis communication.

From propaganda to crisis communication

Propaganda and crisis communication are two fundamentally distinct genres whereby senders construct the symbolic reality through influencing audiences via information. Propaganda is an informational manipulation of public opinion to achieve a desired mode of behavior among the target audience. In contrast, crisis communication is a response to an unexpected negative event that may lead to reputational damage for those who may be perceived as responsible for the crisis. In an authoritarian environment, one of the main tasks of crisis communication is to build a distance between the leader and the crisis. […]

Between the retreat from the Kharkiv region and the withdrawal from Kherson, we saw a new genre emerging in pain in the Russian pro-government media, which sought to find a compromise between propaganda tasks and the need to minimize the crisis-driven political risks. Indeed, this is the very essence of crisis propaganda.

Crisis propaganda in action: from Izyum to Kherson

The first wake-up call for Russian propaganda was the «operation to draw down the Izyum-Balakliya troops and withdraw them to the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic». The so-called war correspondents (“voenkory”) were among the main sources of criticism, as well as a number of pro-Kremlin Telegram channels devoted to military topics. Both were previously loyal to the authorities and the army commanders. However, their tone changed in light of the military retreat. Harsh criticism emerged, including that targeted at the senior military officers and the country’s political leaders. Parts of the political elites decided to use the situation to their advantage. Accusations against some generals came from people such as Ramzan Kadyrov. […]

The simplest way to cover the crisis and to go beyond propaganda was to look for those responsible for the developments. The Kremlin apparently did not manage to prepare an effective communication strategy to explain what had happened, so the easiest solution to bring the situation under control was to resort to threats and reprisals. The prosecutor’s office announced its intention to investigate a number of military Telegram channels and war correspondents, making it clear that their critical coverage of the events in Kharkiv region could be interpreted as spreading fake news and discrediting the Russian army. […]

The scale of events surrounding the retreat from Kherson left no room for crisis denial. The new leitmotif on Russian media channels was the argument about “certain mistakes that were made”. A continued propaganda narrative would need to downplay the importance of the developments by focusing on successes in other areas where the fighting was going on. The logic of strategic communication suggested that the retreat would be explained by referring to rational factors, such as the need to preserve the lives of the military. In this light, the withdrawal from Kherson was positioned as “the only right choice under the circumstances”. However, the combination of these strategies still did not offset the demand for finding someone to blame.

Therefore, crisis communication came to the fore and began to set the tone for the media coverage of the retreat, also as part of the central propaganda shows on Russian TV.

The tasks of crisis communication around the Kherson operation can be divided into two parts. On the one hand, it was to identify the mistakes that led to the retreat. On the other, it was to identify those responsible for these mistakes. In the Russian case, the primary task of crisis communication was to protect the leaders from criticism by managing the identification of possible culprits. The formula which can be summarized as “the president is beyond any responsibility” has been a cornerstone of Russian political communication for many years.

In addition to protecting the country’s first person, crisis communication sought to protect the military leaders from criticism. […]

Moreover, crisis communication seeks to control the frustration triggered by the crisis and to channel protest-oriented aggression towards targets that are less risky politically. For example, the protests of the wives of the mobilized men were, in most cases, not about the fact of mobilization as such, but about the lack of equipment for those mobilized. […]

Crisis communication related to the retreat from Kherson smoothly morphed into propaganda, reiterating the need for the continued ‘special military operation’. The retreat from Kherson challenged the sense of this war for many Russians who had been the target audience of Russian propaganda. The sense had to be restored. In this light, the rhetoric started to emphasize the existential role of the conflict, pointing out that the West received a “historic chance to finish Russia off” and “there is no choice since we are obliged to win”. The crisis was also used as an indicator that “it is necessary to prepare for a long war”, i.e. to convince the target audience that they should be prepared to pay an even higher price in the future.

Thus, in the context of crisis communication, propaganda can only maintain its effectiveness by raising the stakes. This kind of integration of crisis communication and propaganda leads to the birth of a new genre, namely crisis propaganda, which aims not only to protect the country’s leaders from criticism, but also build a new legitimacy for the continued war.


Mariana Vasilache

Mariana Vasilache

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