Aleksandr Podrabinek on objectors and deserters: ‘No One Wanted to Go to War’ 

22 February 2023

by Aleksandr Podrabinek:

Source: Radio Svoboda

War repeals many laws, but it does not repeal the desire to live. Some accept war as a challenge and rush to battle; others meekly accept their fate; still others run away, saving themselves and their families. According to data from Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, since the moment the war began and up until the middle of February of this year, more than 8 million people have left Ukraine, the majority of them women and children. 2.5 million have returned to the country. According to conflicting reports, between 700,000 and 1 million people have emigrated from Russia during the year of war, a significant share of them being draft-age men evading mobilization.

The motives for bearing military service in Russia and Ukraine differ sharply. In Russia, recruits go to the front primarily out of fear of repressions, due to the firm habit of obedience, for the sake of the pay, or out of professional obligation. The prisoners who volunteer for the front are counting on earning their release this way. In Ukraine, citizens mobilized for the war are fighting for their country’s freedom and independence. They understand the reasons for the war, and their behavior inspires respect. More than likely, none of them wanted to go to war, but they feel obligated to defend their homeland not only by state policy but also by their sense of duty.

For all the difference in the situation in Russia and Ukraine, those fleeing the war are united by one thing: a desire to save their own life and frequently a reluctance to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the nation’s or the state’s interests. Supporters of the state and patriots condemn people like that as deserters and traitors.

In Russia, numerous screens are being created for those avoiding mobilization and for deserters. They’re being caught at the state borders. They are being declared wanted. Their relatives are being harassed. The State Duma is discussing bills to stiffen responsibility for avoiding mobilization. Military commissariats are hastily acquiring modern IT that lets them keep a closer eye on draftees and objectors. All efforts are aimed at providing a steady supply of cannon fodder for the military aggression against Ukraine.

Ukraine’s authorities are behaving fairly harshly toward objectors as well. Foreign travel is forbidden to men aged 18 to 60. The Ukrainian Media-Centre, quoting Andrei Demchenko, a representative of Ukraine’s State Border Service, reports that in the slightly under a year since the war began, more than 9,000 people have been detained attempting to cross the state border illegally at locations outside checkpoints since the war began. Another nearly 4,000 people have been detained at border checkpoints attempting to leave Ukraine using forged documents. From time to time, reports appear from various Ukrainian towns about trials of people who refuse military service and mobilization into the army. According to data for September of last year, and according to materials from the operations and investigations subdivision of Ukraine’s State Border Service, more than 1,450 criminal cases have been opened in connection with illegal border crossings.

The state is demanding that citizens defend the national interests, or what they understand that to mean. Actually, this is the position of any government. During the Vietnam War (1966-1973), the total number of deserters from the US Army and conscientious objectors, according to various estimates, was from 500,000 to 570,000. Some of them were tried, but the majority simply hid in other countries.

If we view the question not on the political plane but from the standpoint of human rights, then the motive for waging war doesn’t matter. Naturally, wars vary, but each person has their own moral views, which can differ greatly. The law is supposed to regulate the defense of the law, not individual moral choice. During the Vietnam War, two basic ideas clashed in American society: the idea of supporting the anti-Communist movement in Indochina; and the idea of pacifism and condemnation of any war. Each of these was backed by its own arguments and moral values. One can debate them, but that does not solve the main question: is a citizen obligated to perform military duty or to give his life for state interests simply because he was born and grew up in that country?

Where does the Russian citizen get his duty to defend his fatherland from a genuine, let alone an imaginary, enemy? When and to whom did he incur that debt? Why is he supposed to defend, at the price of his life, the raving mad ideas of a substandard dictatorship in a war with Ukraine? What duty rests on the Ukrainian citizen who is called up to defend his country’s sovereignty and independence? Where does this duty come from? If a citizen is indifferent to his country’s freedom and for whatever reasons does not value state independence, then is it fair to compel him to sacrificial behavior for the sake of ideas he does not share?

The insolubility of the contradictions between individual and public interests is an eternal topic. It’s fine when these interests coincide. But when they don’t? What kind of legal solution can there be given the personal refusal to defend the state? Possibly the minimal solution is the freedom to emigrate. If a person does not share the values of his community, he has the right to leave it at any moment. Don’t detain him. He is not the state’s slave. More than likely, the community, too, has the right to reject someone like that. Naturally, we are talking only about those states in which political power truly does represent the interests of society, has been chosen by it, and has the right to speak in its name.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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