Crackdown on Ukrainian army discipline sparks fear and fury at the front – POLITICO

KYIV — President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday refused to veto a new law that toughens penalties for misguided servicemen, rejecting a petition signed by more than 25,000 Ukrainians who say it is too harsh.

“The key to the combat capability of military units, and ultimately to Ukraine’s victory, is observance of military discipline,” Zelenskyy said in his written response to the petition.

Ukrainian soldiers stunned the world with their resilience and battlefield successes, withstanding a year-long onslaught by Russian troops. But among Kyiv’s forces, made up largely of new recruits with no prior military experience or training, some are struggling to cope. There are those who rebelled against the commands of commanders, got drunk or misbehaved; others, low on ammunition and morale, fled for their lives, abandoning their positions.

Seeking to align his forces, Zelenskyy signed a punitive law in January that introduces tougher penalties for deserters and wayward soldiers, and strips them of their right to appeal.

The law aims to normalize and harden the repercussions of breaking the rules, improve discipline and combat readiness of military units. Disobedience will be punishable by five to eight years in prison, instead of the previous two to seven; desertion or failure to report to work without valid reason up to 10 years. Threatening commanders, consuming alcohol, questioning orders, and many other violations will also be dealt with harsher, potentially with jail time; those who have broken these rules in the past can get away with a trial period or pecking their battle pay.

Those who have lobbied for the new law, such as the Ukrainian army general staff, say it will make discipline fairer: previously, because courts judged offenses on a case-by-case basis, some perpetrators could escape punishment for a serious rule. -break entirely, while others received harsher penalties for lesser violations, according to an explanatory note that accompanied the new law.

But soldiers, lawyers and human rights defenders have denounced the measures as an inappropriate and brutal instrument that will not address the root causes of military indiscipline – and more than 25,000 Ukrainians have called on the president to oppose vetoed the law in a petition submitted to the president late last year.

The new punitive rules remove discretion and turn the courts into a “calculator” to impose penalties on soldiers, regardless of the reasons for their violations, lawyer Anton Didenko explained in a column for Ukrainian news agency Interfax. .

“This law will have negative consequences on the protection of the rights of military personnel accused of having committed a crime and will reduce the level of motivation during service,” said an NGO, the Reanimation Package of Reforms Coalition, in a statement. “This may entail risks both for the protection of human rights and for the defense capacity of the state.”

Zelenskyy’s military commanders disagree, arguing that the measures are necessary to stand firm in the face of Russia’s onslaught.

Ukraine’s Armed Forces grew to over a million soldiers last year | Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP via Getty Images

“The army is based on discipline. And if the loopholes in the legislation do not ensure compliance, and refusalniks can pay a fine of up to 10% of combat pay or receive a suspended sentence, this is unfair,” Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valerii Zaluzhnyi said in a video in support of the new rules.

Zelenskyy, in his response to the popular petition asking him to drop the changes, agreed that disciplinary measures against military personnel should take into account their individual circumstances, and promised that the cabinet of ministers would further consider how to improve the mechanism. disciplinary – although he did not specify when this work could be carried out; nor suspend the law in the meantime.

army of civilians

Ukraine’s armed forces have grown rapidly to more than a million troops in the year since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, up from 250,000 troops.

The influx of hundreds of thousands of new recruits, whom Ukraine had to equip and train while resisting Russia’s barrage, undermined the usual vetting process and meant that some unsuitable soldiers found themselves in combat, Valerii Markus , the chief master sergeant of the 47th Separate Assault Brigade, told his subordinates during a lecture on “desertion at the front” posted on his YouTube channel in January.

“We were trying to vet applicants as best we could under these circumstances,” Markus said. “However, many people from our own brigade do not want to be there.” He said that some of those who joined for the wrong motives, such as a paycheck, “collapse under the pressure and want to run away; start rebelling.

Markus said commanders often don’t understand the problems and shortages faced by their troops in the field due to the inability of local sergeants to communicate with them. He played videos of soldiers complaining about a lack of weapons or inappropriate or illegal orders from their commanders, before telling viewers that most issues could be resolved internally through the appropriate channels, while the public airing of complaints discredited the Ukrainian military and undermined attempts to help. troops.

“Do I recognize the existence of problems that lead to the arbitrary abandonment of positions? Yes,” Zaluzhnyi said in his video supporting the reforms. “Am I working to eliminate them? The successful operations to liberate the territories of our state are confirmation of this.

But members of Ukraine’s armed forces, many of whom expressed respect for Zaluzhnyi, were deeply disappointed by his support for the new law.

“It’s very demotivating. It’s such a stark contrast to Zaluzhnyi’s ‘religion’, which is all about the man and the leader,” said Eugenia Zakrevska, a human rights lawyer who enlisted. in the war effort and who is now a member of the 92nd Separate Mechanized Brigade Ivan Sirko This was a pointed reference to an interview the Commander-in-Chief gave to The Economist in December, in which he said that unlike the Kremlin, the “religion” he and Ukraine practiced was “to remain human in any situation”.

Treat the symptoms, not the disease

Those who oppose the new law argue that Ukraine needs to address the underlying causes of desertion and misconduct, rather than harsher punishment for soldiers who break the rules.

A Ukrainian army officer who recently left the town of Bakhmut (and requested anonymity as officers are not allowed to speak to the press) told POLITICO: “Sometimes giving up positions becomes the only way to save personnel from a senseless death. If they cannot deliver ammunition or [relieve troops]when you sit in the trenches for several days without sleep or rest, your combat value drops to zero.

In response to petition asking him to reconsider his decision, President Zelensky agreed that disciplinary measures should take into account the individual circumstances of military personnel | Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP via Getty Images

The officer added that many discipline problems are rooted in ineffective or negligent command, as well as pressure on Kyiv forces fighting a much larger army of invaders, which means they are not renewed as often as they should.

“Fatigue and trauma lead to mental disorders and introduce chaos, neglect and even depravity into a soldier’s life. It strongly affects fighting qualities and obedience,” the officer said.

Zakrevska of the Ivan Sirko Brigade said Ukrainian soldiers rarely abandoned their positions – continuing to fight even when outnumbered and causing significant casualties.

“Once I had to call the command and ask that our sergeant be ordered to go to the hospital – because he refused evacuation even though he was seriously injured,” Zakrevska said. “He stayed with us, although he couldn’t get proper medical help because our doctor was also injured.”

It is only in desperation that soldiers leave their posts, Zakrevska said, adding that to avoid desertion, commanders should rotate fighters more frequently. But she acknowledged that in many places, R&R for troops is impossible due to a shortage of combat-capable fighters.

Most of the brigades are full, Zakrevska said, but some of them are not fit to fight and “it is impossible to fire them. Because no one can be fired from the army. Only after a verdict in a criminal case. Such a system also greatly undermines morale. Because it turns military service from an honorable duty into a punishment.

“In situations of desperation and complete exhaustion, fear of criminal responsibility does not work,” Zakrevska explained.


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