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Sergei Krivenko: “Russians who refuse to fight are sent to clandestine cells”

Sergei’s phone Krivenko has been flashing continuously since February 24, 2022. On the Telegram channel of his NGO, “Grajdanin. Armiya. Pravo” (“The Citizen. The Army. The Right”), declared a “foreign agent” in Russia as early as December 2021, this human rights defender exiled in Vilnius (Lithuania) follows minute by minute the messages of Russian conscripts, conscripts and soldiers who are seeking by all means to escape the war in Ukraine. “How to resign from the army?” one of them asks. “How to refuse military service?” asks another. The mobilized recount their shock when, after a stay of barely a week in the barracks, they were sent to the front, without training or appropriate weapons. Finally, there are those families who seek to recover “their soldiers” detained in clandestine cells in the heart of the occupied zones of Donetsk and Luhansk for having refused to fight.

With around fifty volunteers in Russia and abroad, Sergei Krivenko is mobilizing to help these “refuzniks” and their relatives. His testimony, given to The Expressoffers an unprecedented dive into this war from which it is becoming, he says, “increasingly difficult to escape”.

L’Express: A video has been circulating for several days showing the arrest of two Russian soldiers by their commander for refusing to fight in Ukraine. This is the first time that the Russian army has staged such a sanction. Is this a warning?

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Sergei Krivenko: This video is clearly intended to intimidate other soldiers who would decide to refuse combat. Since the announcement of the mobilization, on September 21, the legal framework of this war has changed, so that a deserter or any soldier refusing to participate in the fight is liable to a ten-year prison sentence. This hardening is the consequence of the enormous losses suffered by the Russian army and the resulting lack of personnel. Putin’s regime seeks at all costs to deter conscientious objectors.

Do we have any idea of ​​the magnitude of this phenomenon?

It is impossible to establish overall figures. What I can tell you is that since the beginning of the mobilization we have witnessed an explosion of requests for the “hotline” that we have set up to help soldiers who want to escape this war. In total, we have received 50,000 messages since the start of the invasion.

What does this hotline do?

Historically, our association provides legal advice to citizens who would like to refuse to do their military service. We work clandestinely since our organization was declared a “foreign agent” a year ago, like the Committee of Mothers of Russian Soldiers. On the eve of the war, the activity of the soldiers’ defense organizations found itself brutally frozen.

To understand how our service works, we must distinguish conscripts (via conscription), conscripts and career soldiers. Each year, two conscription campaigns are carried out, in the spring and in the fall. The fall call is also underway, until December 31. Those who do not wish to serve in the flag have the right to opt for alternative civic service, under a law that has existed since 2002 and for which our association has campaigned. For the mobilized as for the active soldiers, this law does not apply but the Russian Constitution guarantees – in theory – to any person having pacifist convictions the right to see his service in the army replaced by a civic service. And the Constitution being the supreme norm, this right must be able to be put into practice.

“The noose is tightening little by little. The young men are hiding”

When the war started, we set up a channel on the social network Telegram to help these different categories of people. It is a “bot”, that is to say a software that automatically answers the questions asked, which arrive by the thousands. It took hard work with lawyers to generate standard responses.

What questions do Russians who write to your channel ask?

For the conscripts, these are standard questions: how to refuse to do military service? How to do civic service? For us, these are the “simplest” cases since there is a law that specifies this procedure. The matter is much more complex when it comes to professional soldiers and conscripts. For career soldiers, we have created a legal guide to help them resign from the military without exposing themselves to too heavy legal proceedings. Thanks to this guide, several hundred soldiers were able to leave the army and do not participate in the war in Ukraine.

There remains the case of the mobilized. The announcement of this mobilization – the first since the Second World War – was very stressful and caused an influx of requests for help on our channel. Our lawyers had to put together another manual of recommendations on how to avoid mobilization.

How can we avoid going to the front?

For professional soldiers, it is increasingly difficult to escape this war, because of the new penal sanctions that I mentioned.

As for the conscripts, on paper it was, until recently, quite easy to refuse, since there was no criminal sanction in Russian legislation. It was “enough” to tear up your summons, refuse to receive this paper or not go to the recruitment office, and you only risked a fine. It is moreover for this reason that in several Russian cities, we have seen hunts for mobilized people with police officers who caught young men in the street, at the exits of the metro, in companies, university residences, to take them away by force in the barracks. But on November 1, a bill was tabled to punish refusal to mobilize for five years. The noose is tightening little by little. The young men are hiding.

What do the soldiers who write to you from the front report to you?

Our “hotline” is designed so that most people come with a concrete question to refuse to participate in the war. Our bot responds automatically, but in some cases, when direct intervention is needed, we enter into a chat with the person and learn more about their story. Among these stories, there are mobilized soldiers who find themselves sent to the front line without having received any training, with derisory equipment, problems with uniforms, weapons… And who have absolutely no idea why and how they must fulfill the missions assigned to them. The wife of a conscript told us that he had been called up when he had never done his military service. After spending a week in a barracks, he was sent directly to the front and found himself in combat. Many mobilized were convinced that they were called not to take part directly in the fighting, but to support the soldiers in secondary logistical functions.

Your organization specializes in providing legal aid to soldiers and conscripts in a Russia that has never seemed so authoritarian. But you still manage to get results, it may seem paradoxical…

Indeed, it is paradoxical. Putin’s regime attempts to give the appearance of respect for the rule of law. There is no rule of law and rule of law in Russia as there is in the West. However, when Parliament passes a law, civil servants try to respect it. The law on alternative service dates from 2002, nobody has abolished it, so anyone called can request it. We rely on this legal framework to act.

Have you received testimonies from professional soldiers who have been punished for refusing to fight?

Last July, families of soldiers who refused to fight contacted us. There were so many soldiers who were reluctant to go to the front line that the army, rather than sending them back to Russia, began to put them in secret dungeons in the people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. These detentions are absolutely illegal. A soldier cannot be arrested without a judge’s decision. However, there had been neither a trial nor an investigation. The families of these soldiers told us of the appalling conditions in which they are held: officers beat them and threaten them to force them to return to the front. Thanks to the complaints of these families, we managed to draw the attention of the media to this case and filed a complaint with the Russian prosecutor’s office. This combination of legal and media pressure enabled us to bring back some of these soldiers.

Why is the Russian command detaining these soldiers in the occupied territories rather than in Russia?

Quite simply because of the crying lack of soldiers. The command needs these men and seeks at all costs to put them back on the front line. This is why, since this summer, they prefer to detain these soldiers closer to the fighting. However, these measures were not enough, since the mobilization ended up being declared in September. The new turn of the screw to punish those who seek to escape mobilization (the law proposed on November 1) aims to solve this problem. But that will not prevent a second wave of mobilization. I think it will be decreed at the beginning of 2023.



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