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Russian lawmakers toughen penalties for soldiers as Moscow appears to signal possible escalation


An apartment building, heavily damaged by Russian bombs overnight, in Bakhmut, Ukraine on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022.

By Ivan Nechepurenko and John Ismay


Russian lawmakers Tuesday approved a bill that would toughen punishment for offenses committed during war, including desertion, insubordination and evading military service, a move that could be laying the groundwork for a possible military escalation in Ukraine.


The bill, passed in its second and third readings by the lower house of parliament, the Duma, comes amid debate inside Russia about a possible nationwide military draft after Ukrainian successes on the battlefield. While the Russian government has been trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in the country since the invasion, Ukraine’s recent advances have made it increasingly difficult to do so.


The legislation, which adds the concepts of “mobilization” and “martial law” to Russia’s criminal code, comes amid announcements by leaders of Russia-controlled separatist entities in Ukraine to hold referendums on joining Russia, which the Kremlin could use as a pretext to defend the areas as part of its own territory.


The bill is expected to be approved Wednesday by the Kremlin-controlled Federation Council, the country’s upper house of parliament — widely seen as a formality — before being signed by President Vladimir Putin.


It would introduce tougher prison terms for desertion, evading service by “simulating illness” and insubordination. It also makes voluntary surrender a criminal offense punishable with up to 10 years behind bars. Looting would be punishable with a prison term of up to six years, according to the State Duma’s statement.


The bill also introduced prison terms for failure to supply weapons to the army as prescribed by state contracts.


Igor Strelkov, a Russian former intelligence officer, who has been arguing that Russia cannot win the war without mobilizing, wrote on Telegram that the legislation and the announcements of referendums show that “there is no doubt — very hastily laid legal foundations are being made for a partial mobilization.”


After Ukraine saw success with a swift counteroffensive in the country’s northeastern Kharkiv region, Russia has had trouble defending the hundreds of miles of front line in the country. Russia has struggled to attract recruits as the conflict has dragged on, a senior U.S. defense official said Monday.

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