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Russia seeks to amend law to charge volunteer fighters for ignoring orders, desertion

Volunteers for Territorial Defense Units stand in formation to defend the city from the Russian invasion. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

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

Russia may charge volunteer fighters who surrender, desert, or refuse to carry out orders with a crime as the Kremlin seeks to maintain discipline on the front lines in Ukraine.

Russian lawmakers have proposed amendments to the criminal code that would equate punishments for volunteers with those of professional soldiers, according to a document published on the parliament’s website. Volunteers are not criminally liable for such actions under current legislation.

Russia recruited many volunteer fighters for its invasion of Ukraine with promises of high pay for a tour of duty lasting several months. However, it has extended their tour indefinitely amid a lack of manpower.

President Vladimir Putin said last week that all fighters will remain at the front lines until the war is over. Analysts say he is hesitant to carry out another large-scale mobilization ahead of presidential elections in March. Putin ordered a mobilization in September 2022, sparking anger and the flight of hundreds of thousands of men abroad to avoid conscription.

Some volunteer fighters who have served the terms of their contract have left while others have refused to carry out orders they considered suicidal, according to social media videos. Russia has sent soldiers to attack Ukrainian positions in what is described as “human waves,” leading to a large loss of life.

U.S. intelligences has estimated that more than 200,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded in fighting in Ukraine.