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‘Simply medieval’: Russian soldiers held in pits and cellars for refusing to fight in Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers stay in their trenches to prepare to face Russian forces in Irpin, Ukraine, Sunday, March 6, 2022. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A Russian soldier convicted of insubordination was among a group of conscripts who accused their superiors of locking them up in a cellar in eastern Ukraine after they refused to fight, subjecting them to unsanitary living conditions and an insufficient diet, according to a report by an independent Russian news outlet.

The conviction of soldier Yevgeny Frolov in the far-eastern city of Spassk-Dalny on July 13 came days after new video footage emerged purporting to show Russian soldiers in Ukraine placed in captivity for refusing to go to the front line with insufficient equipment and support.

“We are locked up in this pit for refusing to go to the front line,” a man out of frame can be heard saying in the video, which shows men in camouflage lying in a dank cellar-like room with crumbling walls.

“There are no commanders that would take us to the front line. There is no equipment, evacuation teams, radios. We are just thrown into the woods like dogs,” the man adds in the video, which was published by the independent Russian Telegram channel Astra on July 8.

The video was the latest evidence of more than a dozen such makeshift holding facilities used to allegedly punish Russian soldiers who refused to fight in Ukraine published by Astra, which identified the men in the new video as members of Russia’s 60th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade.

Frolov, the soldier convicted of insubordination in a military court in Spassk-Dalny, was among a group of Russian conscripts allegedly held in a similar cellar in the village of Zavitne Bazhannya in Russian-controlled territory of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, Astra reported.

RFE/RL was unable to independently confirm that Frolov was held in that cellar for refusing to fight in Ukraine, though the Spassk-Dalny military court’s website states he was convicted of insubordination. He was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison, according to Astra, which cited his relatives and fellow soldiers.

Inquiries to Frolov’s listed attorney went unanswered on July 15.

‘Savage Methods’

Yelena Popova, a Russian soldiers’ rights activist, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service that the main goal of forcing soldiers to stay in these battlefield holding pens is to “force you to go to the front again.”

“A commander in a war zone does not need to imprison a person, but he needs to force him here and now to go kill and die. Therefore, he resorts to such savage methods,” Popova said, calling the practice “simply medieval.”

In November 2022, one of the Russian soldiers allegedly held in a cellar with Frolov in Zavitne Bazhannya for refusing to fight filed an appeal to the Russian Investigative Committee alleging “tactical and strategic miscalculations by the higher command, constant lies to subordinates, [and] insufficient medical and material support.”

“My confidence in the commanders has been shaken,” the soldier, Mikhail Nosov, wrote in the complaint.

Maksim Grebenyuk, an attorney who represented Nosov, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service in December that he had several Russian soldiers as clients who were “thrown into basements, where they were kept in inhuman conditions without formalization of procedural documents, no charges were brought.”

Popova told RFE/RL’s Russian Service that soldiers who are subjected to such punishment are often hesitant to undertake a legal fight as well.

“They were under stress for a long time, in conditions where the law does not work, and only force and violence work,” she said.

Relatives of the conscripts shown in the video from the cellar released last week told Astra that they had been unable to contact the soldiers after the footage was released online.