On April 22, the independent Russian media Mediazona shared the tense exchange between the commander of a Russian base and a young soldier under his command. The latter refusing to go to fight, he was threatened with rotting in prison, to which the mutineer replied that this could not be the case. In the letter, the commander was right, Russian law providing for up to ten years in prison for any soldier refusing to obey orders. But in fact, the soldier was not wrong, the legislation specifying that a refusal of an order is possible if the pressure exerted on him proves to be too strong. Also, the Kremlin has not officially declared war on Ukraine, which deprives it of certain legal levers. But above all, Russia cannot afford to condemn its fighters too harshly, at a time when it lacks them and seeks to recruit them.

Like this soldier, they are hundreds, even thousands, to refuse to go to fight in Ukraine. They had not signed up for that and the testimonies collected by the Wall Street Journal tend to show that they were informed at the last moment of their mission. Sent to the edge of the Ukrainian border to conduct military exercises, they had their cellphones confiscated and were instructed to put on bulletproof vests. On February 24, they became soldiers of war. Protests were heard, such as those of the national guards, supposed to ensure the safety of Russian citizens and incorporated, overnight, into infantry corps.

Mutinies and desertions multiplied. On March 4, ten days after the start of the invasion, a commander signed a decree ordering the dismissal of several hundred soldiers for disobedience. Dismissal is, to date, the punishment most used by the Kremlin. It allows him to denounce the presence of traitors in the ranks of the army without too much frightening future recruits. “If they hype these cases, the government will inadvertently amplify the scale of desertion, which is small in percentage terms but will continue to grow,” security expert Pavel told The Wall Street Journal. Lucin. A month after the invasion, more than 1,000 soldiers had already requested legal assistance to challenge their dismissal.

Joining the army is often the only outlet for thousands of young Russians born in isolated and disadvantaged regions. But the pride of defending the motherland now leaves room for anger to be used as cannon fodder. Especially since “the Russian authorities are trying to get conscripts to sign contracts quickly so that they become contractual and can be sent to the front”, explains to L’Express Galia Ackerman, specialist in post-Soviet Russia. “Whether they’re ready or not doesn’t matter to him.” But these young soldiers are not the only ones refusing to participate in the “special operation” in Ukraine, a senior American defense official who said last month that “Russian officers of intermediate ranks at different levels” did not obey not following orders, either by deserting or by not displaying the spirit expected in an officer.

On the front line in the face of the military difficulties facing the Russian army, the chiefs of staff blame each other, in the hope of avoiding the purge. But if the current quagmire lasts too long for Putin’s liking, they could well suffer the same fate as 150 KGB agents, Russia’s intelligence services, dismissed from their posts in April. In any case, they would be easier to replace than the thousands of soldiers under their command.