MOSCOW/DONETSK - Some Russian soldiers are quitting the army because of the conflict in Ukraine, several soldiers and human rights activists have told Reuters. Their accounts call into question the Kremlin's continued assertions that no Russian soldiers have been sent to Ukraine, and that any Russians fighting alongside rebels there are volunteers.
Evidence for Russians fighting in Ukraine - Russian army equipment found in the country, testimony from soldiers' families and from Ukrainians who say they were captured by Russian paratroopers - is abundant. Associates of Boris Nemtsov, a prominent Kremlin critic killed in February, will soon publish a report which they say will contain new evidence of the Russian military presence in Ukraine.
Until now, however, it has been extremely rare to find Russian soldiers who have fought there and are willing to talk. It is even rarer to find soldiers who have quit the army. Five soldiers who recently quit, including two who said they left rather than serve in Ukraine, have told Reuters of their experiences.
One of the five, from Moscow, said he was sent on exercises in southern Russia last year but ended up going into Ukraine in an armoured convoy.
"After we crossed the border, a lieutenant colonel said we could be sent to jail if we didn't fulfil orders. Some soldiers refused to stay there," said the soldier, who served with the elite Russian Kantemirovskaya tank division. He gave Reuters his full name but spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he feared reprisals.
He said he knew two soldiers who refused to stay. "They were taken somewhere. The lieutenant colonel said criminal cases were opened against them but in reality - we called them afterwards - they were at home. They just quit."
Russia's President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly denied that Moscow has sent any military forces to help rebels in eastern Ukraine, where clashes and casualties persist despite a ceasefire struck in February. Putin's spokesman has derided such allegations by NATO, Western governments and Kiev. Officials say that any Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine are "volunteers," helping the rebels of their own free will.
The former Russian soldiers who spoke to Reuters, as well as human rights activists, said some soldiers were fearful of being sent to Ukraine, were pressured into going, or disgruntled at the way they were treated after fighting there.
The former tank soldier from Moscow said he would not have gone to Ukraine voluntarily. "No, what for? That's not our war. If our troops were officially there it would be a different story."
He said he had been sent to fight in Ukraine last summer and returned to Russia in September when the first peace talks took place. His crew operated a modernised Russian T-72B3 tank, he said.
"(Back in Russia) we were lined up and told that everyone would get a daily allowance, extras for fighting and medals," he said. But he said that they did not get the extras they expected. "We decided to quit. There were 14 of us."
The names of nine soldiers who quit the Kantemirovskaya division are mentioned in an exchange of letters between Viktor Miskovets, the head of the human resources department of Russia's Western Military District, and Valentina Melnikova, who runs the Alliance of Soldiers' Mothers Committees, a group based in Moscow.
In the letters, seen by Reuters, human rights workers asked Miskovets to approve the soldiers' resignations - which one soldier told Reuters the military had been unwilling to do. The letters do not mention service in Ukraine.
The soldiers left the service on Dec. 12, according to a letter signed by Miskovets. He and his deputy did not answer calls.
Three soldiers from the list, contacted by Reuters, confirmed they had quit the service recently but declined to discuss Ukraine.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence declined to comment on soldiers quitting the tank unit or being sent to Ukraine.
In Russia, all men aged between 18 and 27 have to serve 12 months in the military. By law, these conscripts cannot be sent abroad. But according to human rights activists, military officials have been promising conscripts financial incentives to sign contracts that make them professional soldiers. The officials then push the soldiers into going to Ukraine.
Sergei Krivenko, head of a rights group called "Citizen. Army. Rights" and a member of a human rights council created by the Kremlin, has dealt with soldiers' rights since the early 2000s. He said military commanders are trying to find more people who will go to Ukraine voluntarily, "but this is still 'volunteers' in quotation marks, because there is harsh pressure."
Krivenko said commanders take a carrot-and-stick approach: They offer large financial rewards to contract soldiers willing to go to Ukraine. If soldiers refuse, they are told to resign, he said. "You can't criminally prosecute someone for not following the order, because the order itself doesn't exist on paper. It's only oral."
Since 2012, contract soldiers' pay has risen, said Krivenko, who travelled to Murmansk to meet soldiers, about 30 of whom told him they had been to Ukraine. "Now they receive 20, 30, 40,000 roubles a month depending on their rank. Some even get 60,000 a month."
The average wage in Russia is about 30,000 roubles ($580).
Resignation is not an easy decision for the soldiers, Krivenko said: "Just like others in Russia, they're paying off apartments, foreign-made cars... The question becomes where do they find the money to pay off debts, to feed their families?"
Reuters could not independently verify Krivenko's account. A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence declined to comment on Russian involvement in Ukraine, but Putin has made his position clear. On April 16, the president said during a televised question and answer session: "I tell you directly and definitely: There are no Russian troops in Ukraine."