Hundreds of Russian troops who refused to continue with the war in Ukraine are being forcibly held in basements and garages in occupied Luhansk, according to a new report published Thursday.
Citing families of the soldiers and human rights organizations, the independent news outlet Verstka reports that at least 234 soldiers who were deployed to various regions of Ukraine are being held at facilities in the town of Bryanka.
That’s where the family members of some of the men say a special center has been set up to deal with those choosing to opt out of the war amid deteriorating morale and dwindling troop numbers.
Vasily, the father of one 23-year-old soldier identified only as Alexander, was quoted telling Verstka about the bizarre series of events that, by his account, led to his son being held captive by his own army.
He said Alexander phoned him on July 8 to announce that he and several other troops had submitted a formal request with military leadership to leave the war. At that time, he said, Alexander told him he’d been summoned to meet with a Russian general to “discuss” his decision.
The next time Alexander phoned him, several days later, he said he was holed up in a basement in Bryanka with other troops who’d tried to quit, Vasily said.
As of Wednesday, he was reportedly still in the basement.
Fatima Gorshenina, the mother of another 22-year-old soldier, said her son and the others held captive with him were trapped in a basement with no electricity, food, or water.
And according to her account, the imprisonment scheme apparently involves Russia’s powerful Federal Security Service and the Wagner Group, a private Kremlin-linked military force accused of war crimes throughout Ukraine, the Middle East, and Africa.
She told Verstka her son, Artyom, had formally announced his desire to quit the war in April, along with at least 81 other troops from the same Russian military base in Abkhazia.
After “nothing was done,” Artyom and a fellow soldier traveled from where they were based in Ukraine’s Kherson region to Crimea, where they turned to the local FSB for help. At long last, the FSB appeared willing to help, according to Gorshenina’s account, promising Artyom and several other soldiers from the same base that they would be transported back to Abkhazia so they could present their requests to leave to the military command.
The next thing they knew, however, their plane had landed in Russia’s Rostov region, where the soldiers were divided up and taken by helicopter to Bryanka, Gorshenina said.
They ultimately wound up locked in basements, with Artyom reporting they were under guard by members of a private military group who called themselves “musicians” (a popular nickname for members of the Wagner group).
“When they took the guys to Bryanka, we called the military base, the commanders of the squadron, the commanders of the base. I asked what they plan to do, why they aren’t taking the guys out of there,” Gorshenina was quoted saying. “I was told that there’s a new center there for objectors. They are having discussions with them,” she said.
Despite being told the troops would be sent back to their base to terminate their contracts if they couldn’t be convinced to continue their service after two weeks, “that didn’t happen,” Gorshenina said.
Instead, as she tried to find ways to rescue her son, she said, some unknown person appeared to be masquerading as him in messages with her.
“I wrote to him, as we call him at home, ‘Gnom, what is the name of your cat?’ After that all the messages stopped,” she said.
As of Thursday, his whereabouts were unknown.
At least 1,793 troops have openly refused to take part in the war so far, according to open source data. Amid reports of Russian commanders threatening troops with prosecution if they choose to abandon the fight, Ukrainian intelligence has reported numerous instances in which Russian troops took desperate measures to try and escape, in some cases straight-up fleeing across the border and in others deliberately injuring themselves.
In one of the most absurd attempts to leave the war, according to Ukraine’s Security Service, a Russian soldier told his father he’d “made up his mind” to “somehow break his leg on the stairs.”
When that didn’t work, his father advised him on the best way to break his own arm.