A group of Russian contract soldiers have refused to go on “an assignment,” as their army command referred to it in the papers they received about their secret deployment. The document did not have any return date. To their astonishment, the soldiers learned, nearly at the last minute, the country for their final destination was Syria. The scandalous case is now being investigated. The soldiers were threatened with severe punishment for their disobedience—a charge of state treason, their lawyer Ivan Pavlov told The Daily Beast, punishable by up to 20 years in prison in Russia.
“All the soldiers are asking for was a clear official order, so their widows would be paid compensations if they get killed abroad. Soldiers have a right to demand proper paperwork, they should always do that before they depart, otherwise their families would not receive a ruble,” Valentina Melnikova, head of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, a Russian organization representing the troops’ families, told The Daily Beast.
But instead of providing the contract soldiers with the official paperwork, the army command reported them to investigators, according to the lawyer. Russian authorities have confirmed they provide weapons and military advisers to the Syrian government, as Moscow has for years, but deny Russian soldiers are being deployed into combat in Syria.
Last month, 20 soldiers from different Russian regions were gathered in an improvised unit and deployed to Novorossiysk, a military port in southwestern Russia. If normally it takes weeks to register weapons, this time they were rapidly armed with machine guns. All the soldiers knew about their final destination was that it was a country with a hotter climate than Russia’s, with snakes, and that upon their arrival they would not be allowed to leave the base. Russian online publication Gazeta.ru investigated their story. On the way to Novorssiysk, in Russia’s Eastern Military District, the soldiers were still thinking that they were being deployed to eastern Ukraine, where the Russian military was involved in the conflict, unofficially.
On September 16, the soldiers found out from a headquarters officer the details of their secret assignment: They were to sail to the Syrian port of Latakia. “We thought we were sent to Donbass, it turned out to be Syria,” one of the soldiers told gazeta.ru, referring to the region of eastern Ukraine where Russian soldiers have clandestinely deployed for over a year. The departure was scheduled for the following day. Most of the 20 contract soldiers did not want to travel to Syria and decided to officially turn down their contracts at a local military prosecutors office in Novorossiysk. “We do not want to go to Syria, we do not want to die there,” one of the soldiers, Aleksei, told gazeta.ru. “That business trip sounded strange from the very beginning,” he added.
The soldiers wrote a complaint to the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights and even received an answer, of sorts. Council member Sergei Krivenko reminded them that the only legitimate document that had power in the army was a written order. The soldiers had never received such an order. According to the Russian constitution, any soldier can demand status for service. The press service of the Eastern Military District did not give any comment about the fate of the contract soldiers and denied any plans of deploying contract soldiers to Syria. “The noise that the soldiers raised has helped them so far, all of them have been sent back to their original bases in the Ural mountains. But if authorities decide to prosecute the soldiers with treason, we are going to make public the soldiers’ names and release more details about how army commanders kept their soldiers in the dark,” the legal defender Pavlov said.
In less than six months, Pavlov has had to defend four Russians charged with state treason. “This is a real wave. I have never in my practice had as many clients facing such charges,” Pavlov told The Daily Beast. The lawyer was a part of the Komanda-29 group of lawyers, founded last year and named after the 29th article of the constitution, which stipulates: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought and speech.”
The soldiers’ lawyer, Pavlov, expressed hopes that authorities would not proceed and prosecute the soldiers. The number of Russians charged with treason had been growing, since Vladimir Putin signed a law about foreign agents in 2012. On Monday, a Moscow court sentenced one of Pavlov’s clients, Gennady Kravtsov, a former intelligence radio engineer, to 14 years in prison. Kravtsov’s crime could sound even less significant than the soldiers’ in Novorossiysk: He sent his résumé to a Swedish company looking for work.