Russia on Saturday toughened penalties for voluntary surrender and refusal to fight with up to 10 years imprisonment and replaced its top logistics general after a series of setbacks to its seven-month war in Ukraine.
The tough new amendments and personnel change come days after Russia instigated partial mobilization with Kyiv taking back more and more territory in a counter-offensive.
Integrating the four regions into Russia would mean that Moscow would consider any military move there as an attack on its own territory.
“Army General Dmitry Bulgakov has been relieved of the post of deputy minister of defence” and will be replaced by Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev, aged 60, the defense ministry said.
Military-age men have sought to leave, with flights full and neighboring countries receiving an influx of Russians, including Georgia where 2,300 private vehicles were waiting to enter at one crossing, regional Russian authorities said.
“Not everyone wanted to leave in February. The (mobilisation) decision of September 21 forced many to think about it again.”
Now that President Vladimir Putin has signed the legislation, servicemen who desert, surrender “without authorization”, refuse to fight or disobey orders can face up to 10 years imprisonment.
Looting will be punishable by 15 years imprisonment.
On Friday, US President Joe Biden dismissed as a “sham” the voting on whether Russia should annex four regions of Ukraine, which ends next Tuesday.
The voting is being held in Russian-controlled areas of Donetsk and Lugansk in the east, and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south.
“Ultimately, things are moving towards the restoration of the Soviet Union. The referendum is one step towards this,” Leonid, a 59-year-old military official, told AFP.
Bad weather and stiff Russian resistance caused Ukraine’s counter-offensive to slow to a brutal slog in Kupiansk in the eastern Kharkiv region on Saturday.
Irpin, close to the capital, was recaptured after weeks of fighting and residents have rallied to start rebuilding before winter sets in.
– Evidence of ‘war crimes’ –
“People don’t have much money, but they agreed” to donate funds to gradually restore the shattered homes, he told AFP.
Zelensky has denounced the polls, on Friday calling them “crimes against international law and the law of Ukraine”.
In the eastern Kharkiv region, Ukrainian officials said they had exhumed 447 bodies from a site near the city of Izyum, which was recaptured from Russian forces.
Originally published as Russia stiffens penalty for surrender, replaces top general