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The war in Ukraine fuels fears among young Russians of draft age

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As Moscow’s forces bog down in Ukraine, many young draft-age Russians are growing nervous about being sent into battle. Making those fears particularly acute is an annual spring conscription that begins on Friday and aims to round up 134,500 men for a year-long military tour.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu promised at a meeting of senior military officers this week that new recruits would not be sent to the front lines or to “hot spots”.

But the statement was met with skepticism by many Russians who remember the separatist wars in the southern republic of Chechnya in the 1990s and early 2000s, when thousands of poorly trained young men were killed.

“I don’t trust them when they say they won’t send conscripts into combat. They lie all the time,” said Vladislav, a 22-year-old who is finishing school and fears he will face the draft immediately after graduation. He asked that his last name not be used, fearing reprisals.

All Russian men between the ages of 18 and 27 must serve a year in the military, but many avoid conscription for health reasons or deferments granted to university students. The share of men avoiding conscription is particularly high in Moscow and other major cities.

Even though President Vladimir Putin and his officials say conscripts weren’t involved in what Russian authorities call “the special military operation in Ukraine,” many appear to have been taken prisoner in its early days. Videos have emerged from Ukraine of captured Russians, some shown calling their parents, and have been posted on social media.

The mother of one of the prisoners said she recognized her recruited 20-year-old son in 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 identified only by her first name, Lyubov, for security reasons. “I breastfed him. I raised him.”

The Ministry of Defense was forced to go back on its statements and admit that some conscripts had been sent to Ukraine “by mistake” and had been taken prisoner while serving in a supply unit far from the front.

There have been allegations that prior to the invasion some conscripts were forced to sign military contracts which allowed them to be sent into combat – a duty which is normally reserved for army volunteers only. Some of the captured soldiers said their commanders told them they were going to a military exercise, but suddenly found themselves fighting in Ukraine.

Lyudmila Narusova, a member of Russia’s upper house of parliament, spoke in early March of an entire company of 100 men who were coerced into signing such contracts and sent to the combat zone – and only four survived. Military officials have not commented on his allegations.

Svetlana Agapitova, human rights commissioner in St Petersburg, said on Wednesday relatives of seven soldiers had written to her complaining that the men had been coerced into signing the contract and sent to Ukraine against their will. She said that two of them had already been brought back to Russia.

In recent years, the Kremlin has focused on increasing the share of volunteer contract soldiers as it seeks to modernize the army and improve its readiness. The one million force now has more than 400,000 contract troops, 147,000 of them infantry. If the war drags on, these numbers may be insufficient to sustain operations.

The Kremlin could eventually face a choice: continue to fight with a limited number of soldiers and see the offensive stagnate, or try to replenish ranks with a larger project and risk public outrage that could fuel sentiment. anti-project and destabilize the political situation. Such a scenario occurred during the fighting in Chechnya.

Dmitry, a 25-year-old computer scientist, has a reprieve that should rule him out of the draft for medical reasons. But he is still nervous like many others, fearing that the authorities will suddenly give up some adjournments to reinforce the army.

“I hate war. I think it’s a total disaster,” said Dmitry, who also asked not to be identified by his last name, fearing reprisals. “I fear the government may change the rules and I may face the draft. They also said for months that they would not attack Ukraine, so why should I trust what they say about the project now? »

Proposed legislation would facilitate the project by making it easier for military recruiters to call up draftees, but the bill has been put on hold for the time being.

Still, it added to public anxiety.

Alexei Tabalov, a lawyer who advises draftees, said medical commissions at recruiting offices often admit young people who should be exempt from service due to illness. Now, he added, their attitudes could get even tougher.

“It is quite likely that doctors will turn a blind eye to conscripts’ illnesses and declare them fit for military service,” Tabalov said.

As well as lowering the medical standard for conscripts, there are fears the government is trying to impose a kind of martial law that would ban Russian men from leaving the country and, like Ukraine, force them to fight.

“We received a lot of calls from people fearing mobilization,” Tabalov said. “People are now afraid of everything in this situation. Nobody even thought before about the need to analyze the law on mobilization.

The Kremlin has strongly denied any such plans and military officials insist the army has enough contract soldiers to serve in Ukraine. Still, many Russians remain skeptical of officials’ denials, given their track record.

“What kind of trust could there be if Putin one day says conscripts won’t be sent there…and then the Ministry of Defense acknowledges they were there?” asked Tabalov.

An existing law allows 21 months of alternative civilian service in hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities for those who consider military duty incompatible with their beliefs, but military draft offices often largely ignore requests for this service.

After the war began, Tabalov said his group saw a surge in inquiries about the Alternative Service Law, which is loosely worded and makes it easy for military officials to deny requests.

“We are concerned that in the current militaristic mood, military conscription offices may take a tougher stance and reject calls for alternative civil service,” he said.


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