On April 9, Russia's RIA Novosti state news agency published a brief article claiming large numbers of Ukrainian servicemen were deserting their positions in the embattled Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
The source for these claims was the press service of the “People’s Militia,” the Russian-supported militants of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR).
“ver the past two weeks, 244 military personnel have deserted from positions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” the article stated.
"The largest number (of deserters) are from the 36th Marine Brigade, occupying positions in the Mariupol direction. 44 Marines fled there."
The claim is unsubstantiated, and given the DNR’s record of spreading disinformation, it is likely false.
First of all, 244 people in military terms is roughly two companies, which would be a significant loss over just two weeks. Since 2015, the war in Donbas has been mostly static and fought in artillery and sniper duels. Absent major battles and offensives, such a large and rapid desertion of Ukrainian soldiers would be highly unusual. Polygraph.info attempted to reach the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense for a statement, but received no response.
A check of the 36th Marine Brigade’s Facebook site shows the unit has recently suffered casualties. On April 6, there was a memorial notice for a marine who was killed, and there was another on April 12, for a marine killed four days earlier.
The DNR authorities, along with their counterparts in the neighboring separatist Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), have a long history of making unsubstantiated and sometimes bizarre claims about the situation at the front. These have included repeated claims that foreign mercenaries, usually said to be Polish, are fighting on the side of Ukraine, a claim Poland's Ministry of Defense has denied.
- On March 9, the LNR’s press service made baseless claims about Polish and Lithuanian snipers and instructors returning to the front.
- In January 2020, the same press service falsely claimed that Canadian mercenaries were fighting on the side of Ukraine.
- In 2016, the LNR press office made unsubstantiated claims that fighters from the militant Turkish nationalist organization known as the Grey Wolves were deployed in Donbas. It has also been claimed, again without evidence, that Islamic State members have fought on the side of Ukraine.
- In 2019, the LNR press service reported that a unit of “female snipers” from the Baltic states were deployed in Donbas on the Ukrainian side.
- In 2017, DNR authorities claimed that two dozen Polish “female snipers” were working for the Ukrainian Armed forces in Donbas.
- In 2016, DNR authorities claimed that American mercenaries caused a brawl in a nightclub in Mariupol. The story was a fabrication, and the nightclub where the fight supposedly broke out does not exist.
- In 2017, the LNR authorities claimed that 30 Ukrainian soldiers had deserted over just one week. Again, no evidence was provided.
Many other similarly unsubstantiated claims by these Russian proxy sources have been documented.
To date, the largest desertions from the Ukrainian armed forces occurred in 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and fomented an armed uprising in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas territory. The first major desertions were by Ukrainian troops in Crimea who supported the Russian annexation. In August 2014, during the battle of Ilovaisk in Donbas, Ukrainian army units were surrounded and routed by Russian proxy forces aided by regular Russian military units and Russian artillery fire from across the border.
Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s office noted in a report on the battle compiled in 2017 that “numerous” Ukrainian armed forces personnel either deserted or abandoned their positions without authorization during the battle of Ilovaisk.
It is estimated that since 2014, more than 13,000 people have been killed in the Donbas conflict, with nearly two million others displaced either internally, into government-controlled Ukraine, or into Russia.