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

The Bill would introduce tougher prison terms for desertion, evading service and insubordination. PHOTO: NYTIMES

MOSCOW - Russian lawmakers Tuesday approved a Bill that would toughen punishment for offences 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 "mobilisation" 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 offence 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.

Mr Igor Strelkov, a Russian former intelligence officer, who has been arguing that Russia cannot win the war without mobilising, 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 mobilisation."

After Ukraine saw success with a swift counteroffensive in the country's north-eastern 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 US defence official said Monday.

"The Russians are performing so poorly that the news from Kharkiv province has inspired many Russian volunteers to refuse combat," said the official, who was not authorised to speak publicly about the status of Russia's war in Ukraine.

The official added that the leader of the Wagner Group, a private military company with ties to the Kremlin, had been seen in videos posted on social media asking Russian prisoners, Tajiks, Belarusians and Armenians to join the fight in Ukraine.

"We believe this is part of Wagner's campaign to recruit over 1,500 convicted felons," the official said. "But many are refusing."

Last week, a video posted online and analysed by The New York Times showed the Wagner Group promising convicts that they would be released from prison in return for a six-month combat tour in Ukraine. It is unclear when the video was filmed. NYTIMES

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