Russia is considering a new law that would hand 20-year prison sentences to battlefield defectors and others who volunteer to fight for foreign armies – the latest sign of President Vladimir Putin’s growing alarm at the state of his invasion of Ukraine.
The new bill introduced by leaders in the State Duma – the lower chamber of Russia’s legislature – would add penalties to the existing criminal code for those who participate “in an armed conflict, hostilities or other actions with the use of weapons and military equipment on the territory of a foreign state for purposes contrary to the interests of the Russian Federation, ”according to translation of the proposed text.
The most grievous violators, including those who contribute to raising a militia that would operate outside Russia or indeed against its military, could face as long as 20 years in prison and fines exceeding 2.5 million rubles, or roughly $ 40,000.
Several Kremlin watchers familiar with inner workings in Moscow tell US News the introduction of the bill reflects growing concern among Russian elites of the rates of defectors on the battlefield in Ukraine, along with reports that hundreds are volunteering to join specialized units in the Ukrainian army composed of disaffected Russian citizens.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, they say leaders in Moscow believe the law will help control the domestic population.
“Russia has seen significant brain drain over the past three months,” says Colin Clarke, senior research fellow at private intelligence firm The Soufan Center. “The longer the war drags on, the worse it looks for Putin, and thus, the more he will seek to control the population and the information environment within Russia.”
“This could be a sign that the Kremlin is increasingly concerned that the war is becoming ever more unpopular domestically,” Clarke adds.
But among the most discomfort factors facing the Kremlin is a new, specialized Ukrainian army unit known as the Freedom of Russia Legion composed of Russian defectors. Established weeks after Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, legion leaders said earlier this month that they receive hundreds of applications to join each day.
“There are a lot of people who want to,” a Russian representative said during a press conference organized by Ukraine’s Interfax news agency on May 4.
“Our legion also includes our Belarusian brothers. Our legion includes active and retired military of the Russian Federation and otherwise, ”another soldier said. “People come from different countries to fight the Putin regime.”
The unit has subsequently posted several videos to its Telegram channel that it claims depict forces capturing Russians operating in Ukraine.
The Guardian reports hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled their homeland since Putin ordered the invasion, including intellectuals, journalists and other activists – but noted that few among Russia’s political or business elites have directly and openly criticized the Russian leader and the war.
“I want to go to the place where I can defend my homeland with a weapon, I’m trying every day,” one expatriate in Kyiv told the paper. “I’m never going back to Russia.”
Those numbers, however, are expanding. A veteran Russian diplomat this week resigned his position in Geneva in protest of Putin’s invasion.
“Never have I been so ashamed of my country,” Boris Bondarev wrote in a public statement.