With Moscow’s armed forces stranded in Ukraine, many young Russians of draft age are becoming increasingly nervous about being sent into combat. Those fears are made particularly acute by an annual spring conscription that begins Friday and aims to round up 134,500 men for a year of military service.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu promised at a military meeting this week that the new recruits would not be sent to the front lines or to “hot spots”.
But the statement was met with skepticism by many in Russia, who remember the separatist wars in the southern Chechen Republic in the 1990s and early 2000s, when thousands of poorly educated young men were killed.
“I don’t trust them when they say they won’t send conscripts into battle. They lie all the time,” said Vladislav, a 22-year-old who is graduating from college and worries he may face conscription right after graduation. He asked not to give his last name, fearing reprisals.
All Russian men between the ages of 18 and 27 are required to serve a year in the military, but a large proportion avoid conscription for health reasons or to postpone their studies. The proportion of men who avoid conscription is particularly high in Moscow and other large cities.
Although President Vladimir Putin and his officials say conscripts are not involved in what the Russian authorities are calling “the special military operation in Ukraine,” many appeared to have been captured in the first few days. Videos of captured Russians, some shown calling their parents, emerged from Ukraine and were shared on social media.
The mother of one of the detainees said she recognized her 20-year-old son, who was conscripted, from a video even though he was blindfolded.
“I recognized him by his lips, by his chin. You know, I would have recognized him by his fingers,” said the woman, who asked to be called Lyubov by her first name for security reasons. “I breastfed him. I raised him.”
The Ministry of Defense has had to retract its statements, acknowledging that some conscripts were “accidentally” sent to Ukraine and captured there while serving with a supply unit off the front lines.
There were allegations that before the invasion, some conscripts were forced to sign military contracts that allowed them to go into combat—duties normally reserved for army volunteers only. Some of the captured soldiers said they were told by their commanding officers that they were going to a military exercise, but suddenly ended up fighting in Ukraine.
Lyudmila Narusova, a member of the upper house of the Russian parliament, spoke in early March of a whole company of 100 men who were forced to sign such contracts and sent to the combat zone – and only four survived. Military officials did not comment on their claim.
Svetlana Agapitova, the human rights officer in St Petersburg, said on Wednesday that relatives of seven soldiers had written to her to complain that the men had been forced to sign the treaty and been sent to Ukraine against their will. She said two of them have already been returned to Russia.
In recent years, the Kremlin has emphasized increasing the proportion of volunteer contract soldiers in order to modernize the army and improve its readiness. The force of 1 million now has over 400,000 contract soldiers, including 147,000 in infantry. If the war drags on, these numbers might not be enough to keep operations going.
The Kremlin could eventually be faced with a choice: fight on with a limited number of troops and see the offensive falter, or attempt to fill the ranks with a broader proposal and risk public outrage that fuels anti-project sentiment and political sentiment could destabilize the situation. Such a scenario happened during the fighting in Chechnya.
Dmitry, a 25-year-old IT professional, has a shift that should keep him out of the draft for medical reasons. But he’s still nervous, like many others, over concerns the authorities could abruptly reverse some shifts to bolster the military.
“I hate war. I think it’s a total disaster,” said Dmitry, who also asked not to be identified by his last name for fear of reprisals. “I’m afraid the government might change the rules and I might face the draft. They also said for months that they would not attack Ukraine, so why should I trust what they are saying about the draft now?”
The proposed legislation would ease the draft by allowing military recruiters to more easily draft conscripts, but the law has been shelved for the time being.
Nonetheless, it contributed to public concern.
Alexei Tabalov, a lawyer who advises conscripts, said medical boards in recruiting offices often admit youth who should be suspended from duty because of illness. Now, he added, their attitudes could get even tougher.
“There is a high probability that doctors will turn a blind eye to the conscripts’ diseases and declare them fit for military service,” Tabalov said.
In addition to lowering medical standards for conscripts, there are fears the government could seek to impose a kind of martial law that would prevent Russian men from leaving the country and force them to fight like Ukraine did.
“We have received many calls from people fearing mobilization,” Tabalov said. “In this situation, people are afraid of everything. Nobody had previously thought of the need for an analysis of the mobilization law.”
The Kremlin has firmly rejected such plans, and military officials insist the army has enough contract soldiers to serve in Ukraine. Still, given their track record, many Russians remain skeptical of officials’ denials.
“What kind of trust could there be if one day Putin says conscripts aren’t going there… and then the Defense Ministry acknowledges they were there?” Tabalov asked.
Existing law provides for 21 months of alternative community service in hospitals, nursing homes and other settings for those who find military service inconsistent with their beliefs, but military service agencies often largely ignore requests for such service.
After the war began, Tabalov said his group saw a surge in inquiries about the Civil Service Law, which was vaguely worded and allowed military officials to easily refuse applications.
“We fear that in the current militaristic mood, military service agencies may take a tougher stance and turn down appointments to community service,” he said.
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