Some have lost a limb or their life, others their freedom. But in multiple cases, Russian contract soldiers and their families have received none of the benefits promised by the state for signing up to fight in Ukraine -- no combat bonus pay, no pardons of convictions, no compensation for injury or death, and no documentation to prove they ever fought at all, RFE/RL’s Russian investigative unit, Systema, has found.
The findings are based on evidence that includes conversations which Systema and Current Time conducted with soldiers, former soldiers, and relatives.
The hundreds of thousands of people who have signed agreements with the Russian Defense Ministry to fight in Ukraine play a crucial role in the Kremlin’s efforts to maintain manpower without resorting to a mass call-up like the one President Vladimir Putin ordered in September 2022. That mobilization proved highly unpopular, prompting large numbers of young Russians to flee the country, and analysts say Putin is particularly wary of such a move ahead of the March 2024 presidential election.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov recently attributed what the state says is an increase in the number of people willing to sign contracts this year in part to what he called the “very, very attractive” terms of the agreements.
Mobilized recruits and volunteers who sign short-term contracts with the Defense Ministry to fight in Ukraine and are supposed to receive the same pay and benefits as professional armed services personnel who have signed contracts. The salary is a minimum of 195,000 rubles ($2,115) per month – nearly three times the average monthly wage.
On top of payments, the mercenary group Wagner promised prisoners pardons as well -- some 32,000 convicts had received clemency as of June, according to the late Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. After Wagner discontinued its penal recruitment program in February, Defense Ministry officials apparently continued to seek out prisoners willing to sign short-term contracts.
Relatives of those who signed contracts to fight in Ukraine, however, frequently complain in online chats and to their legislative representatives that the promised payouts and pardons never came.
Exactly how widespread these broken promises are is unclear, and neither the Russian Defense Ministry nor the office of Russia’s human rights commissioner responded to RFE/RL’s questions.
The complaints recorded by Systema show that the problem persists.
'I Just Happened To Slip Up'
For a 52-year-old with a record of petty offenses, the chance to cut short a prison sentence for theft and battery may have seemed too good to miss. But Yury Motorny, a resident of the Krasnodar region in southern Russia, never received a pardon.
Wounded shortly after he was sent to the front last spring, he died in a hospital in Russian-occupied Crimea in September.
His widow, Anna Motornaya, said that she was not told where he was sent when he was wounded and was not allowed to see him in the hospital when she found out a month later. After his death, she said, she received no documents confirming he fought in Ukraine, no combat pay, and no compensation of any kind.
“I don’t even know what unit he served in or the number of his contract,” Motornaya said.
“He wasn’t on the Defense Ministry’s payroll, and the [military] prosecutor’s office hasn’t said a word so far.”
The Defense Ministry has proposed legalizing the recruitment of prisoners for military service -- a practice that Olga Romanova, head of the prisoner rights organization Russia Behind Bars, has likened to “a game of Russian roulette with the highest stakes.”
Soldiers who survive sometimes struggle to receive any benefits.
Dmitry Yefimov had six years left on his sentence on a drug charge when he signed a contract with the Russian military in May and was released from prison in the Perm region. Before he was even sent to the front, he had his left hand blown off by a TNT charge in a training “game,” he said, and his face was also damaged in the blast.
As of September, Yefimov was in a Crimean hospital, still waiting for documents that would entitle him to compensation for the time he spent in training.
His commanders do not answer his questions and the military prosecutor’s office had only just begun to look into his case, he told Systema.
“I knew what I was doing. It’s all or nothing. I just happened to slip up,” Yefimov said. “I didn’t want to get out of prison at the age of 30, like I was supposed to. Without a family, an apartment, a car. And with a conviction like that hanging over my head.”
Treatment 'Worse Than For Ukrainian Prisoners Of War'
In December 2022, after five months without leave or the promised combat bonus, volunteer Nikolai Troshin, 45, exercised his right not to prolong his contract with the Russian Defense Ministry.
The response was brutal, said his wife, Oksana Troshina.
Troshin, she said, was put into a “pit” -- a cellar or large hole in the ground where the soldiers are sometimes confined without food, water, or medical treatment as a disciplinary measure.
Soldiers’ rights activist Yelena Popova told RFE/RL’s Russian Service that officers use this “simply medieval” measure to "force you to go to the front again."
In Troshin’s case, there was no need -- the Defense Ministry automatically renewed his contract despite his written request for a discharge, his wife said.
Troshina claimed that after she complained to the military prosecutor’s office and the Commissioner for Human Rights about the treatment of her spouse, she received e-mails from officers in his unit who called him “a coward” and an “alcoholic.”
She alleged that her spouse’s commanding officers also beat him and tore off his insignia.
“The treatment is worse than for Ukrainian prisoners of war,” Troshina charged. “And he’s not the only one like this.”
She added that he still had not been given leave or received any payment apart from his monthly salary of 28,411 rubles ($308). Russia’s official monthly minimum wage is 16,242 rubles.
The wife of Junior Sergeant Sergei Prokudin, 37, recounted a similar experience. Prokudin, she said, signed a contract in September 2022 out of “patriotism -- not for the money,” but after being wounded twice, refused to return to the front for the remaining time in his contract.
“They held him for 11 days in a basement for this, but he doesn’t want to go back,” Anastasia Prokudina said.
Prokudin’s contract, too, was automatically extended without his receiving any combat bonuses, his wife claimed.
After several tries, Prokudina, who was pregnant with the couple’s fourth child when Systema/Current Time spoke to her, said that she managed to get her husband’s unpaid combat bonuses through the military prosecutor’s office.
But he remained in Ukraine, his return date unknown.
The families of mobilized soldiers, fearing reprisals, contact journalists to share their problems less frequently than the families of volunteers and ex-convicts. Their relatives, however, describe similar problems -- in at least two cases recounted to Systema, individuals sent into combat received no combat bonuses.
As of August, the defense committee in the State Duma, Russia’s lower parliament chamber, had received 829 appeals about nonpayment to mobilized soldiers since November 2022, the official government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta reported, citing committee member Dmitry Kuznetsov.
In one instance related to RFE/RL, the soldier, who was wounded, does not have the papers needed for his family to receive compensation.
That dilemma extends to some of the soldiers recruited by Redut, a purported a private military company that Systema and Schemes, RFE/RL’s Ukrainian investigative unit, found is actually a recruitment system coordinated and funded by the Russian military and its intelligence agency, known as the GRU.
Putin posthumously awarded Redut-recruited sniper Aleksandr Kopyltsov an Order of Courage in November 2022, but the Defense Ministry and military prosecutors still deny any record of his fighting in Ukraine, his relatives said.
Finding information about how many military personnel have not received promised payments from the Defense Ministry is nearly impossible. Complaints go to the military prosecutor’s office, which does not publish information about the number of related court cases.
“The payments take place after they process the paperwork, and the army has always had problems with this,” said Sergei Krivenko, director of the Moscow-based advocacy group Citizen.Army.Law. The fact that unit commanders now are in a combat zone “only exacerbates the paperwork problems,” he added.
Another lawyer who works on such cases agreed that commanders do not always have time to enter data about their subordinates into the Defense Ministry’s Alushta personnel-accounting database.
These bureaucratic snags mean that Russian military personnel “very often” are left without money they are due, and the wounded without documents that confirm that they were injured during combat, added the lawyer, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.
The same extends to compensation for the families of volunteer soldiers killed in combat, he added. “This wasn’t foreseen in the law. And this also isn’t in the contracts; same with the timing of pardons.”
Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova stated in late October that she has received 5,746 appeals from Russians fighting in Ukraine, but how many of these communications have to do with payments or pardons is unclear.