BMany things are different than usual in this year’s compulsory campaign. The Russian government wants to force 134,500 people into military service – so the target is within the usual range. However, the question is exactly what these men will face in the year they are forced to work. There are many signs that they will soon end up in a war zone and fear for their lives there.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said this week that new men would not be sent to lead areas or “hot spots”. However, the report raised suspicions among large sections of the population. Many still remember the two Chechen wars of the 1990s and 2000s, which killed thousands of poorly trained young soldiers. The events that led to the invasion of Ukraine raise suspicions among many of the victims.
“I do not believe them when they say they do not send people forced into war. They lie all the time,” says 22-year-old Vladislav, who fears he will be called immediately after graduation – and does not want to give his full name for fear of revenge.
The current draft campaign runs from Friday. In theory, all Russian men between the ages of 18 and 27 should serve one year. However, so far, many have been able to avoid being called, for example due to health reasons or because they have been postponed due to university education. In Moscow and other major cities, the proportion of non-military personnel has traditionally been high.
President Vladimir Putin and his government initially said that those forced into the war of aggression against Ukraine were not used, which they always refer to as “special military action” in their campaigns. But in the first few days, a large number of Russian compulsors were apparently captured on Ukrainian soil. In the videos that spread online, some of them returned to their parents.
“I breastfed him. I raised him.”
The mother of one of the victims says she identified her 20-year-old son in one of the videos, even though he was blind. “I recognized him by his lips and cheek. I would have recognized him by his fingers,” says the woman, who cares about his safety and wants to keep his first name only Lyubov. “I breastfed him. I raised him.
The Ministry of Defense initially had to admit that Russian compulsory men were also sent to Ukraine. This was said to have happened “by accident” and the detainees were working in a distribution unit far away from the front line. Prior to the invasion, the occupants were said to have been forced to sign contracts – a practice generally reserved for professional soldiers. Some detainees said their superiors told them they were going for military training.
Lyudmila Narusova, who sits in the upper house of the Russian parliament, said in early March that the entire company of 100 was forced to sign such agreements and was sent to war – only four of them survived. The Armed Forces did not comment on the allegations.
Svetlana Agapitova, a human rights official in St. Petersburg, on Wednesday complained that relatives of seven soldiers were forced to sign men’s contracts and then sent to Ukraine against their will. According to reports, two of them are currently back in Russia.
Moscow must make a decision sooner or later
In recent years, the Kremlin has made efforts to increase the proportion of professional soldiers as part of the modernization of the Armed Forces. Of the approximately one million members in the force, there are currently more than 400,000 volunteer contract soldiers. However, it is questionable whether this figure will be sufficient in the event of a protracted war in Ukraine.
Sooner or later Moscow must make a decision: it may lose some military objectives by constantly fighting with a small number of soldiers, or it may call in more men for service and endanger public opposition to destabilize the political situation. Such a development occurred during the Russian wars in Chechnya.
Dmitry, a 25-year-old IT expert, has not yet been drafted for health reasons. However, like many young Russians, he now fears that the authorities may suddenly tighten the rules to strengthen the armed forces. “I hate war,” Dmitry insists, as he only wants to give his first name. The government has been saying for months that the attack on Ukraine was unplanned. “Then why should I believe what you are saying now about coercion?”
According to Alexei Tabalo, a lawyer who advises those who are being coerced, young people are more likely to be included in the service despite health problems. Now he warns that standards could fall further. “Physicians will ignore the ailments of those who are compelled and declare them eligible for military service.”
There are also fears that Moscow may impose some kind of martial law to prevent Russian men from leaving the country – which is already in place in Russian-occupied Ukraine. “We get a lot of inquiries from people who are afraid to mobilize,” Tablov said. The Kremlin has vehemently denied any such plans. According to the lawyer, the general suspicion in this matter is now high.
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