Ukraine Passes Law Allowing Military to Shoot Deserters

Ukrainian army
A fighter jet flies above as Ukrainian soldiers sit on an armoured personnel carrier in Kramatorsk, in eastern Ukraine April 16, 2014. Marko Djurica/ REUTERS

The Ukrainian parliament has approved a motion to allow commanders in the armed forces to fire at army deserters or those being insubordinate, and to arrest servicemen for "negligence" or "drinking alcohol" while on duty.

The motion was discussed in a session yesterday afternoon, with 260 MPs passing it out of a total 320, according to Ukrainian news agency Unian - surpassing the necessary 226 votes needed to pass the bill. It will now be added as an amendment to the current Ukrainian legislation on the regulations imposed on commanders' actions toward their charges.

The relevant passage of the bill, referring to "insubordination of the soldier, defiance or challenge to the commander, use of violence, abandonment of battle station or designated premises", states: "In a combat situation the commander may use weapons or give orders to subordinates on their application, if no other way to stop the offense exists, without causing the death of the other party."

"If the circumstances allow, the commander, prior to the use of these special measures or use of his weapon, ought to warn the other party by either using his voice or firing a warning shot, to act as an indication he is going to use the forthcoming measures." The full text of the law is posted on the Ukrainian parliament's website and is downloadable here.

The act will allow commanders to "utilise drastic measures" - defined by the UN as the use of force and firearms - towards officers caught acting in violation to the code of conduct during combat duty or while they are on border patrol. The new act adds "drinking alcoholic or low-alcoholic beverages" while on duty as an offence punishable by arrest and incarceration.

Article 1 of the motion, which has been voted in as the new law as of Friday, outlines the problems which poor discipline, consumption of alcohol and desertion are causing to the morale of the Ukrainian armed forces, and the need to address them.

Newsweek asked the Ukrainian military to comment on exactly which offences the licence to use force ('drastic measures') would apply to and the extent of that force. Newsweek also asked the Ukrainian military to reiterate whether this was addressing any specific disciplinary problems with this law. The Ukrainian military did not respond.

The motion was passed, which was indicated by a parliamentary notice, and reported by Ukrainian news sources Unian and Dialog.

Balázs Jarábik, a researcher for the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, specialising in central and eastern Europe, believes the new law is not as surprising as it seems, but rather "an old Soviet practice". Asked if the new law indicates a lack of commitment in Ukrainian troops he replied "Not at all."

"The armed forces are very committed - look at the battle for Donetsk airport or the fierce fight for Debaltseve. Kiev could not even order those folks to withdraw," he said referring to the fierce battle for Donetsk's airport which has been ongoing since September, and the Ukrainian forces defence of the small town of Debaltseve in the face of advancing rebel militants.

According to Jarábik, Kiev's major military challenges are to do with its administration, and issues regarding recruitment and allegations of corrupt leadership are particularly problematic.

"Crucially, Ukraine failed to ensure the necessary quantity of soldiers altogether in the standard four mobilization rounds during the last annual cycle," Jarábik adds. According to a statement made by the deputy commander of Ukraine's armed forces Vladimir Talaylay, 78,000 people had been called up for duty by last month, but only 46,000 new recruits were enlisted into the military as a result.

The Ukrainian armed forces announced earlier this week they may resort to call up women aged over 20 in the next recruitment cycle to make up the numbers.

Along with Ukraine's troops a series of volunteer battalions have formed with the backing of wealthy businessmen, the most famous of whom is Igor Kolomoyski, who reportedly funds the volunteer Aidar, Azov, Dnepr-1, Dnepr-2 and Donbas battalions.

The existence of such units has remained a controversial topic as there are no universal rules about who regulates their practices.

"Many of the volunteer battalions partially assimilated in the army are paid for by oligarchs," Jarabik says. "Ukrainians increased their military spending this year but indeed corruption remains a big issue," Jarábik adds.

"The Ukrainian population is increasingly tired under economic duress as well, as what they perceive as Russian aggression. They don't think their post-Maidan leadership treat them with the necessary honesty and dignity."

According to UN figures the conflict in eastern Ukraine has already killed over 5,000 people and displaced close to a million both internally and externally.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the law permitted the use of force against those found drinking on duty and acting negligently. The law does not specifically licence this, but rather offenders' arrest and incarceration.

Following queries about this story, it has also been amended to include a more lengthy quotation of the new law, and a link to the full text of the law from the Ukrainian parliament's website, the translation of which has been confirmed with the Ukrainian military.

A quotation from a Human Rights Watch spokesperson was also removed. The Human Rights Watch representative was commenting on a general principle, not on the specific Ukrainian law.