As Moscow’s forces become trapped in Ukraine, many young Russians of draft age are concerned about the prospect of being sent to war. Making those fears particularly acute is an annual spring union that begins Friday and aims to round up 134,500 men for a one-year tour of military duty.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu pledged at a meeting of military officials this week that new recruits would not be sent to the front lines or “hot spots”.
But the statement was met with skepticism by many in Russia, who remember separatist wars in the southern republic of Chechnya in the 1990s and early 2000s, when thousands of poorly trained youth were killed.
“I don’t trust them when they say they won’t send soldiers to war. They lie all the time,” said 22-year-old Vladislav, who is finishing his studies and fears he will graduate. He could face the draft soon after. He asked not to use his last name for fear of retaliation.
All Russian men aged 18-27 must serve a year in the military, but a large proportion avoid the draft for health reasons or the deferment granted to university students. The share of men who survived the draft is especially large in Moscow and other major cities.
Even when President Vladimir Putin and his officials are in what Russian officials call a “special military operation in Ukraine,” many were taken prisoner in their early days. Videos of Russians captured from Ukraine surfaced, showing some calling their parents and putting them on social media.
A prisoner’s mother said she recognized her 20-year-old drafty son in a video, even though he was shown blindfolded.
“I recognized him by his lips, by his chin. You know, I must have recognized him by his fingers,” said the woman, who for security reasons asked to be identified only by her maiden name, Lyubov. “I breastfed her. I nursed her.”
The Defense Ministry was forced to back down from its statements and admit that some consignments were “accidentally” sent to Ukraine and taken prisoner while serving with a supply unit far from the front.
There have been allegations that prior to the invasion, some soldiers were forced to sign military contracts that allowed them to be sent into battle – duties usually reserved only for volunteers in the military. Some of the captured soldiers said that their commanding officers told them they were on their way to a military exercise, but suddenly found themselves fighting in Ukraine.
Lyudmila Narusova, a member of the upper house of the Russian parliament, spoke in early March about an entire company of 100 people who were forced to sign such contracts and sent to war zones. – and only four were left. Military officials did not comment on his allegation.
Svetlana Agapitova, the human rights commissioner in St Petersburg, said on Wednesday that relatives of seven soldiers had written to her complaining that the men were forced to sign contracts and deported to Ukraine against their will. He said that two of them have already been brought back to Russia.
In recent years, the Kremlin has insisted on increasing the share of volunteer contract troops as it sought to modernize the army and improve its preparedness. The 1 million force now has over 400,000 contract soldiers, including 147,000 in infantry. If the war continues, those numbers may be insufficient to sustain operations.
The Kremlin may eventually be faced with a choice: keep fighting with a limited number of troops and watch the offensive stall, or try to refill the ranks with a broader draft and risk public outcry that will fuel anti-draft sentiment. can promote and destabilize the political situation. One such scene happened during the fighting in Chechnya.
25-year-old IT specialist Dmitry has a procrastination that should keep him out of the draft for medical reasons. But he is still, like many others, nervous, fearing that the officers may suddenly do something to strengthen the army.
“I hate war. I think it’s a total disaster,” said Dmitry, who also asked that he not be identified by last name for fear of reprisal. “I fear the government may change the rules and I can face the draft. They too have been saying for months that they will not attack Ukraine, so why should I trust what they say about the draft?”
The proposed legislation would help simplify the draft, allowing military recruits to more easily summon constables, but the bill has been put on hold for now.
Nevertheless, it added to the public’s concern.
Alexei Tabalov, a lawyer who advises constables, said medical panels in recruiting offices often admit young people who should be exempted from service because of illness. Now, he said, his stance could be even tougher.
“It is quite possible that the doctor may close his eyes and declare him fit for military duty,” Tabalov said.
In addition to lowering the medical standard for the draft, there are fears that the government may try to impose some sort of martial law that would ban Russian men from leaving the country and force them to fight, like in Ukraine.
“We’ve got a lot of calls from people for fear of mobilization,” Tabalov said. “People are now afraid of everything in this situation. No one had previously thought of the need to analyze the law on mobilization.”
The Kremlin has strongly denied any such plans, and military officials say the military has enough contract troops to serve in Ukraine. Still, many Russians doubt the authorities’ refusal, given their track record.
“What kind of confidence can it be if Putin says one day that the soldiers will not be sent there … and then the Defense Ministry assumed they were there?” Tabalov asked.
An existing law allows 21 months of optional civil service in hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities for those who consider military duty inconsistent with their beliefs, but military enlistment offices often ignore requests for such service. Huh.
After the war began, Tabalov said his group had seen a large increase in inquiries about the Alternative Service Law, which is vaguely phrased and allows military officers to easily turn down applications.
“We are concerned that in the current militaristic mood, the Military Consignment Office may take a hard line and refuse an appeal for an alternative civil service,” he said.
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