Soldiers of misfortune. Russian troops in occupied Ukraine are killing each other at an alarming rate — Novaya Gazeta Europe
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Soldiers of misfortune

Russian troops in occupied Ukraine are killing each other at an alarming rate

Soldiers of misfortune

Illustration: Alisa Krasnikova / Novaya Gazeta Europe

Violent crime committed in the occupied territories of Ukraine by Russian soldiers against their own comrades has skyrocketed: in 2023 alone, 190 cases went to trial, though the actual number of incidents is likely much higher.

On the night of 17 October 2022, a Russian soldier named Artyom Terekhov decided to desert his unit in the Russian-occupied Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine. He took a rifle and left, planning to hitchhike out of the country. After waiting by the road for some time, a beige van stopped to give Artyom a ride. The driver was a Russian military officer on his way home to his wife’s house.

Artyom sat in the passenger seat and the van continued on its way. Later on, the driver turned off the main road, stopped the car, and tried to open his door. Terrified that he would be caught, Artyom jumped out of the car and fired his weapon at the officer through the passenger-side door.

Artyom dragged the officer’s body out of the van and drove away. He travelled 5 kilometres through a few more villages, then stopped the car and continued on foot. In the forest near the village of Rodakove, Artyom stumbled upon a Russian military deployment point. He attempted to shoot the soldiers there, but realised he had emptied his entire 25-round magazine when he killed the officer earlier. Artyom was apprehended and, in June 2023, was sentenced to eight and a half years in a high-security prison. His case file revealed that he was drunk at the time.

This is just one of dozens or potentially hundreds of murders that Russian soldiers in occupied areas of Ukraine have committed.

Rising murders

Analysing court data, Novaya Gazeta Europe estimates that between January and October 2023, at least 135 Russian soldiers were tried for murder in Russian-occupied Ukraine — more than the total number of murders committed by veterans across all of Russia’s regions combined. This is a minimum estimate, as the garrison courts of partially occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions do not publish their case files online.

Russian servicemen in the Luhansk region, 25 October 2023. Photo: Stanislav Krasilnikov / Sputnik / Imago Images / SNA / Scanpix / LETA

Russian servicemen in the Luhansk region, 25 October 2023. Photo: Stanislav Krasilnikov / Sputnik / Imago Images / SNA / Scanpix / LETA

Other violent crimes that soldiers were charged with include manslaughter, violation of firearm handling rules, and assault.

Manslaughter cases are often concealed by reducing the charges to “violation of firearm handling rules”, a lighter criminal offence. In 2023, the number of such cases in the occupied regions surged to 32, a nearly tenfold increase.

Previously, Novaya Gazeta Europe investigated how veterans continue to commit acts of violence upon returning home and revealed that judges often commute their sentences and impose fines, while sending ordinary Russians to prison for similar offences.

Bickering in the dugout

In April 2022, a soldier named Ruslan Vysotsky had a dispute with an unnamed fellow serviceman. During the argument, Ruslan’s comrade shot him in the leg. The two soldiers were separated, but their commander brought them together again after four hours to resolve their conflict. During their discussion, Ruslan drew a pistol and fatally shot his fellow soldier in the head after he accused him of being gay. Vysotsky offered to dispose of the body himself or falsely report the death as a combat casualty, but instead, he was reported to the military police.

Soldiers are hardly ever punished for drinking, unless they commit a serious crime like murder, independent media outlet Verstka previously reported.

As in civilian life, killings on the battlefield often arise from personal conflicts and disputes, as in Vysotsky’s case, but the potential for violence escalates greatly due to those involved all being armed. On the frontline, it is very tempting to write off killings as combat casualties, so there is no way of knowing for sure exactly how many of these killings have taken place.

Alcohol featured in 83% of murder cases analysed by Novaya Europe. The defendants themselves were reportedly intoxicated in 76% of them, which is higher than Russia’s national average of 67%. Soldiers are hardly ever punished for drinking, unless they commit a serious crime like murder, independent media outlet Verstka previously reported.

Russian soldiers in a trench, Luhansk region, 5 October 2023. Photo: Stanislav Krasilnikov / Sputnik / Imago Images / SNA / Scanpix / LETA

Russian soldiers in a trench, Luhansk region, 5 October 2023. Photo: Stanislav Krasilnikov / Sputnik / Imago Images / SNA / Scanpix / LETA

“To what extent is a person suffering from PTSD responsible for their actions? He should be treated, not tried. Perhaps forcibly,” said lawyer Sergey Golubok. “But no one cares about this in Russia. Especially in the occupied territories.”

Court experts have identified some defendants as alcoholics, drug addicts, and people suffering from mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Expert testimony is sought in only 10% of cases. Nevertheless, military personnel diagnosed with mental disorders are usually found to be mentally fit enough to stand trial, often on charges of aggravated assault and murder.

“To what extent is a person suffering from PTSD responsible for their actions? He should be treated, not tried. Perhaps forcibly,” said lawyer Sergey Golubok. “But no one cares about this in Russia. Especially in the occupied territories.”

Personal conflicts don’t always result in murder, of course. Soldiers often try to scare or teach their comrades a lesson by aiming at their arms and legs, or stabbing them.

In January 2023, a drunken Russian officer named Vladimir Polyakov, who served in the occupied Luhansk region, summoned one of his subordinates to his dugout via radio. The day before, while conversing with a woman in a cafe, the soldier disclosed sensitive information about his battalion’s objectives and deployment. Upon his return, Polyakov decided to punish him for his indiscretion by shooting him in the leg. As the soldier fell, Polyakov struck him twice on the head with the handle of his gun, for which he received a suspended sentence of three years and three months for abuse of power.

Of the available cases heard in the Russian-occupied territories, at least 27 were for aggravated assaults, excluding beatings that resulted in the death of the victim. This is more than was heard in Russian military courts throughout 2022.

In total, 36 of the cases involved charges for “violent acts against a superior” and “abuse of power”, both of which are used to hide fights and injuries.

Civilian casualties

Late one evening, a military truck stopped outside of a storefront in a village near Starobelsk in the Luhansk region. The servicemen left the truck to buy beverages. Allegedly, one of the civilians standing outside the shop started insulting the men.

Having stocked up, the soldiers got back into the truck. However, one of the soldiers “decided to scare” the civilian by pointing his rifle at him out of the back of the truck. When the truck began to move, Yefremov accidentally pulled the trigger and shot the civilian in the chest, killing him.

Russian soldiers cover a vehicle with camouflage netting, 16 May, 2024. Photo Evgeny Biyatov / Sputnik / Imago Images / SNA / Scanpix / LETA

Russian soldiers cover a vehicle with camouflage netting, 16 May, 2024. Photo Evgeny Biyatov / Sputnik / Imago Images / SNA / Scanpix / LETA

On 4 July, Ukrainian prosecutors opened a criminal case into the murder of a civilian travelling through the occupied Kherson region to Crimea with two other adults and a child. “They were stopped by intoxicated Russian soldiers and severely beaten,” the prosecutors said.

The exact number of civilians killed by Russian soldiers in occupied territories is hard to estimate, as Russian media outlets rarely reports such stories and court data remains scarce. The few Russian media reports available that cover such stories do not refer directly to the killing of civilians, but to “Ukrainian agents” who “planned acts of sabotage” or “had passed information to the Armed Forces of Ukraine”.

Reporting the killings committed by Russian soldiers in occupied Ukraine would contradict the official narrative, in which locals are only killed by Ukrainian “Nazis”.

Despite the Russian authorities considering the civilian population in occupied Ukraine to be Russian citizens whether or not they have in fact applied for the status, as crimes against local residents are in fact often crimes against Ukrainian citizens, they should be recognised as war crimes, lawyer Sergey Golubok says, meaning that such cases should be heard by the International Criminal Court.

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