ISTANBUL: A week into Moscow’s war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a gesture of solidarity with his soldiers at the front: Injured men could claim compensation of three million roubles, equivalent to about US$50,000 or the amount an average Russian worker would earn in four years.
“It’s our duty to support the families of our fallen and injured war comrades,” said Putin when he announced it in early March.
But with the number of wounded servicemen mounting, some of them are finding that Putin’s gesture is not as generous as it initially seemed.
Reuters has found that some injured soldiers - including those with significant wounds - are struggling to obtain the compensation, based on interviews with four injured Russian service personnel, a wounded soldier’s relative, two people involved with advocacy groups representing soldiers and a lawyer.
For some, it’s because a little-noticed clarification to the rules has narrowed the criteria for eligibility; others face bureaucratic obstacles or delays in getting applications approved.
Maxim Grebenyuk, a lawyer who runs a Moscow-based advocacy organisation called Military Ombudsman that provides legal advice to service personnel in disputes with their employer, said he has received hundreds of requests for help from wounded servicemen chasing the payments.
“There’s a certain amount of social tension among military personnel” towards authorities in relation to these payments, he said.
Russia’s defence ministry, health ministry, and Kremlin did not respond to Reuters questions for this article, including about the payment scheme and the numbers of soldiers wounded or killed.
Putin in April said the Russian state needed to ensure the “implementation of all our commitments for the welfare of service personnel, especially those who sustained injuries”.
Five months after Putin invaded Ukraine, the conflict is taking a heavy toll on Russia’s military as well as its economy due to international sanctions, according to Ukraine and its Western allies.
The United States has estimated that potentially 45,000 Russian soldiers have been wounded and around 15,000 killed, which would equal the Soviet death toll during the Soviet-Afghan war of 1979 to 1989.
Three of the soldiers Reuters spoke to also described heavy losses to their units.
One, who said he was a platoon commander, said that half of his 200-person unit were killed or wounded over a two-month period.
A soldier in his twenties said his battalion had initially numbered 700 but by June only about 100 were still fit for combat, with the rest dead, injured or refusing to fight. Reuters was unable to independently verify the accounts.
Russia, which says it is conducting a special military operation in Ukraine, has not released casualty figures since Mar 25, when the defence ministry said there were 1,351 killed and 3,825 wounded. Ukraine has also sustained high numbers of casualties; Kyiv said in June that 100 to 200 Ukrainian troops were being killed per day.
Hospitals are also experiencing shortages. Some injured Russian servicemen are arriving at hospitals without enough beds, doctors or equipment to treat them properly, according to two of the soldiers and an official involved in Moscow’s military operations.
Putin announced the payments on Mar 3 during a meeting of his security council broadcast on national television. Two days later, he issued a decree setting out the compensation, commonly referred to among soldiers as “presidential payments”.
The decree stated that anyone who suffered a “concussion, injury, mutilation” while serving in Russian security forces in Ukraine would receive three million roubles.
Seven weeks later, on Apr 22, the defence ministry issued details on the payment’s implementation that were posted on its website, including specifying that to be eligible injuries needed to be among those described on an official list.
Sergei Krivenko, head of an advocacy group called “Citizen. Army. Rights.” which helps soldiers fight legal cases, said he believed the move was prompted by growing costs.
“Three million is such a big amount, at the end of the day. And it turned out there were too many people” who were eligible, he said. The Kremlin and defence ministry didn’t respond to questions about the reason for the rule change.
One Russian soldier caught out by the change was the one in his twenties who described the losses in his battalion. He said he was a gunner in an anti-tank unit and served in Ukraine’s Luhansk region, scene of some of the heaviest fighting.
Like other soldiers who spoke to Reuters, he asked to remain anonymous because he feared punishment for speaking to the media.
The soldier, from Southern Russia, said he and his unit were at the front line in early June when a mortar landed nearby and a piece of shrapnel struck his leg.
At the military hospital in Rostov he received an official diagnosis: Shrapnel wound to the soft tissue of his right lower leg with damage to the muscle.
At another military hospital where he later had an operation on the wound, a surgeon initially told the soldier he would be entitled to the so-called presidential payment but then changed his view, according to the gunner.
He said the doctor told him the list of eligible injuries referred to in the Apr 22 document include a ruptured muscle, but the diagnosis cited only muscle damage.
“I was upset, of course,” said the soldier, adding that since Apr 22 obtaining the payment had “got complicated”. He said he has since secured a second opinion that confirmed a ruptured-muscle diagnosis with the help of a lawyer, whom he didn’t name.
The soldier has applied to the head of his unit for the three million rouble payment, according to a copy of the July application he shared with Reuters. In late July, he said he had received the payment.
Staff at the hospital where the soldier said he had his operation did not answer calls placed by Reuters. Rostov’s military hospital didn’t respond to a request for comment on accounts that he and another soldier gave to Reuters about their medical treatment.
Two other soldiers say they too have been told by doctors their injuries didn’t meet the specific eligibility criteria.
One of those soldiers, in his 40s and from central Russia, said he was serving in a motorised rifle battalion in the Luhansk region when shrapnel from a land mine lodged in his arm. The soldier said he was sent to the same military hospital in Rostov and put in the ear, nose and throat department because that was the only place with beds free.
“There’s no space, they put you wherever they can,” he said.
While being treated in hospital, doctors told him that the so-called presidential payment was only being given to people with damaged or broken bones or those who had suffered more severe injuries. He was told his injury involved “only the soft tissue”, he said.
He said he nevertheless applied for the payment and hasn’t received a formal response.
Reuters confirmed he served in the Luhansk region and reviewed copies of his medical records, which confirm his name and the nature of the injury.
The other soldier, from Russia’s North Caucasus region, was shot in the thigh while serving in Ukraine in April, according to a document issued by doctors at a military hospital in the same region he is from.
The document, shared with Reuters by a relative, shows doctors stated his injuries were not included in the list referred to by the defence ministry on Apr 22.
The relative said the soldier may appeal the doctors’ decision so that he can apply for the presidential payment. The hospital didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Another soldier, the platoon commander in his mid-40s from central Russia, said he decided not to apply for the payment.
He sustained a concussion when his unit came under attack in the Luhansk region but delayed seeking medical attention because he didn’t want to abandon his men, many of them combat novices, according to the commander.
Once he did seek treatment at a hospital in eastern Ukraine, he said, a fellow patient who was a colonel told him he would no longer qualify for the payment because of the new criteria.
The list referred to by the defence ministry on Apr 22 said concussion would only be eligible if confirmed by doctors within three days of it happening.
Reuters independently verified the platoon commander’s identity and that he serves with Russian forces, but wasn’t able to corroborate his account of his injuries or treatment.
Some soldiers have not been explicitly told they don’t qualify for the payment but have still struggled to obtain the compensation.
Another man, who said he was as an infantry soldier from Moscow in his early 20s, told Reuters that in early April he’d been near the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv when a mortar landed close to him, overturning a truck he was unloading and breaking toes on his foot.
He says he applied in April for the three million rouble payout and, having received no response, also wrote to the military prosecutor asking for an explanation.
Reuters has seen some of his medical notes and a July letter from the military prosecutor’s office stating it had contacted the head of the soldier’s unit asking that the issue be looked into.
The military prosecutor’s office didn’t respond to questions about whether there had been delays and if so, the reason for them.
A law relating to wounded-soldier compensation payments states that a correctly-submitted application should receive a response within 15 days.
The soldier said he was still having trouble with his foot and had filed a request with the commanders of his unit to quit military service. He said: “They put the question to me: Will you go back again? And I said no.”