Aleksandr Podrabinek: Sacred Duty – on the right to desertion

3 May 2024

by Aleksandr Podrabinek

Source: Radio Svoboda

War like nothing else aggravates relations between the state and its citizens. Mobilization is announced, conscription rules are toughened, military service by contract is promoted. Sometimes it is necessary to protect the country from military aggression, in other cases the state simply needs cannon fodder for yet another military adventure. It can happen in different ways, even within the framework of a single military conflict.

Citizens also behave in different ways. While some ‘ardent patriots’ voluntarily join up, others – ‘pragmatic deserters’ – hastily flee the country. All have their reasons, and we will not now assess whose arguments deserve the greater respect. The question in its most general form can be set out in this way: is a citizen obliged to give his life for the country, if the state requires it?

There is no international convention that provides for the right to desertion, and no national laws. But in terms of meaning, it is close to the right to life and the right to alternative military service for reasons of conscience. But these are not solutions to the legal problem, but more or less successful ways of getting around it.

A person enters this world thanks to the good will of their parents. At birth, they cannot assume any obligations, and that includes service in the armed forces. And no one can impose such obligations on them, no one asks their consent. However, when a male reaches the age of 18 in Russia, it is suddenly announced that they must fulfil their civic duty, serve in the army or even go to war. What is the origin of this duty? When and to whom is it owed? Who asks whether a person is willing to take on this duty? No one. No such question is asked. The state imposes on its young male citizens the obligation of military service at its whim and by law. A law which the young citizen had no influence over because of their minority.

Now let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the state. The authorities consider it necessary to wage war. Either the country has been attacked by an aggressive neighbour, or Nazis have been identified in the nearest state, which must be exterminated urgently. The state always has a lot of reasons to go to war, and even more excuses. But how to wage war, without enough soldiers for a combat-ready army? That is why the state calls on its citizens to undertake military service. And the citizens who do not want to lay their lives on the altar of the Fatherland hastily flee this state. More than one million people, including men of conscription age, left Russia after the war with Ukraine began. According to EU statistics, more than 800,000 men from Ukraine have taken refuge in Europe. Russian security forces catch potential conscripts at the borders and often forcibly send them to the front. Ukraine, as a democratic country, generally treats its refugees more humanely, but is also concerned about having enough personnel for its armed forces. In April, consular services were suspended for Ukrainians abroad if they did not register for military service. It is possible to do this only in Ukraine, and those aged between 18 and 60 will not be able to leave Ukraine. In Russia, electronic registers for military registration and the sending out of call-up papers are being introduced for this year’s autumn draft. Employers will be obliged to independently keep military records and inform military commissions about employees of conscription age. Fines for failing to do so will be up to 500,000 roubles. And this is just the beginning. No doubt in time offences that have until now come under administrative law will be treated as criminal offences.

Of course, Russian and Ukrainian deserters may differ greatly in their attitudes to civic duties. After all, the moral grounds for war in these countries are very different. But now we are not talking about morality, but about law. How can we reconcile the duty of the state to defend the country with the right of a citizen not to go to the slaughter? I see only one way out: renunciation of citizenship. A deserter renounces their duty to defend the country and with that relinquishes their right to influence the state, to enjoy the benefits of that state and the advantages of citizenship. They voluntarily become an outcast in their own country or leave it. The state treats the former citizen as an ordinary foreigner and renounces the compulsion of conscription. It seems to me that this is the only possible compromise. At least for democratic countries. As for authoritarian regimes, here the solution to any legal problem is above all else related to the need to establish a legitimate government in the state.

‘But then everyone will refuse to serve and what will happen to the state?’ a vigilant statesmen may exclaim. The answer is that everything will be as it should be. If no one wants to protect the state, then no one needs it. I don’t think this would happen to a good state. But to a bad one, very easily.

Translated by Simon Cosgrove