Russia boosts recruitment campaign in fresh step towards war mobilization

Although enlistment is not yet compulsory, many Russians have received confusing letters inviting them to go to a military registration office

Russian Army Mobile Recruitment Center in downtown St. Petersburg on May 28.
Russian Army Mobile Recruitment Center in downtown St. Petersburg on May 28.ANTON VAGANOV (REUTERS)

The hawks in the Kremlin last week disavowed their president, Vladimir Putin, by admitting that the offensive in Ukraine is not going according to plan. “The established deadlines are not being met,” the secretary of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, acknowledged in an interview. After three months of fighting, the Kremlin continues to maintain that it is officially a “special military operation” and not a war, although it has already taken the first steps for future mobilization if its military presence continues over time. Until then, the legal status of the campaign has allowed hundreds of professional soldiers to refuse to fight without facing criminal charges for breach of duty.

“All the objectives set by the president will be fulfilled. It cannot be otherwise: the truth, including the historical truth, is on our side”, asserted Patrushev in another example of how the offensive has ideological connotations. Just before the conflict began, the United States estimated that Russia had deployed between 169,000 and 190,000 troops around Ukraine, representing most of its ground forces, so a prolonged campaign will require many more troops for rotation, even if all they do is defend the territory under their control.

In early May, the Kremlin called the prospect of a general mobilization “foolish.” But confusing letters have been arriving in the mailboxes of many Russians for weeks, inviting them to go to the nearest military enlistment office to “clarify their data” with a view to “actions for a mobilization of human reserves.” Nobody remembers a similar precedent in the past. Upon arrival at the office, not only is a note made about who may be summoned in a hypothetical mobilization; sometimes medical exams are also ordered or the officials urge people to sign a contract that automatically puts the citizen in the reserve, if he is not sent to the front before that. According to attorneys specializing in this area, many people mistakenly believe that following this process is mandatory.

“In Russia, preparations for a mobilization are taking place. The Economy Ministry has officially allocated millions of rubles for this purpose; the recruitment points are updating their databases and the companies are adjusting to those needs,” explain sources from Call to Conscience, a platform created by lawyers and human rights defenders to provide legal advice on recruitment through Telegram.

Until now there has been no compulsory mobilization, but many are unaware of their rights and the legal aspects of what they find when they go to the enlistment points. “They call you with the excuse of updating your data, but when you go they try to convince you to enlist,” summarizes one of the two cases that this newspaper has learned about.

According to Call to Conscience, the information provided can be “confusing” and the office staff tries to persuade the potential volunteer by promising stability, salaries of 200,000 rubles (four times the average Russian salary, about €2,800), promises that they will not be sent to combat zones or that the contract can be easily terminated. “Sometimes it’s about promises and misinformation. Some recruits who are about to finish their mandatory service are told that they will remain in service and if they sign, at least they will receive money, ” said this source.

The whole process is getting very confusing and some enlistment offices have issued orders as if a state of war had already been declared. The lawyer and founder of the human rights NGO Agora, Pável Chikov, revealed on social networks that a center in Saint Petersburg illegally demanded that a company hand over its vans “for mobilization duties.”

Medical exams for Metro employees

Something similar has happened at some companies. The wife of an employee of the Moscow Metro told the newspaper Viórstka that managers gathered the staff “and verbally ordered all the men to undergo an extraordinary medical checkup in connection with the possibility of sending them to the war in Ukraine. ” Panicked staffers believed that they were being recruited, something that is not legal right now, although companies can already receive orders to prepare the ground to call up the reservists.

Job offers have appeared on Russian employment websites looking for “wartime mobilization specialists.” The job descriptions include everything from managing paperwork to reorganizing the chain of work in all kinds of sectors, including hospitals, factories and universities.

A mobilization, total or partial, can only be decreed by the president, Vladimir Putin. The reserve includes both those who have done their military service and those who did an alternative civil service. The figures for reservists are classified information, although US think tanks such as the Council on Foreign Relations estimate that Russia has some two million reservists. But these are little more than numbers on paper: in 2014, at the beginning of the war in Donbas (eastern Ukraine), the Russian Defense Ministry admitted that it only had about 8,000 reservists trained for modern combat and wanted to raise their number to about 80,000.

Military service is compulsory in Russia until the age of 27, but by law the Kremlin can only send professional soldiers to war – and this has not been officially declared. However, the Defense Ministry acknowledged in March that some recruits had been sent to Ukraine, calling it “an error.” There are two conscriptions for military service a year, and in the spring call about 135,000 young men were notified.

With a view to facilitating enlistment, the Russian parliament has also expressly abolished the age limit for signing the first military contract, which was set at 40 years for Russians and 30 for foreigners. In fact, letters for “clarification of data” have even reached foreigners who obtained Russian citizenship in the past.

Russian soldiers during the Victory Day parade on May 9 in Moscow's Red Square.
Russian soldiers during the Victory Day parade on May 9 in Moscow's Red Square.ALEXANDER NEMENOV (AFP)

Illustrating citizen concern about the recruitment, Pavel Chikov’s law office received more than 2,000 inquiries about how to avoid being sent to Ukraine until mid-May. “If at first it was mostly women [relatives of the military] who wrote, now the number of requests from men has increased,” the lawyer remarked on his social media.

Dismissed for not fighting in Ukraine

According to the coalition of lawyers, even during a national mobilization it should be possible to invoke conscientious objection, because legislation in times of war continues to comply with the Constitution, and Article 59 says that “people whose beliefs or religion are incompatible with military service have the right to an alternative civil service.” The website of the Defense Ministry reports that these pacifist ideas can be of all kinds, “philosophical, moral, ethical, political or religious,” so in theory it would be a personal decision to accept going to the front.

“Unfortunately, we know the price of rights and freedoms in modern Russia. The presence of a right in the Constitution and in international law does not mean that this right can be implemented in practice,” denounces Call to Conscience.

For now, the designation of the offensive in Ukraine as a “special operation” has legally protected hundreds of soldiers who refused to obey orders. Their only punishment so far has been dismissal. “The facts have shown that when the military resign because they do not want to participate in a special operation, they are fired but no criminal cases are initiated,” says Alexánder Bélik, coordinator of the Movement of Conscientious Objectors.

The latest example dates back to May 25, when a military court in Nalchik dismissed the request by 115 members of a unit of the National Guard (Rosgvardia) of Kabardia-Balkaria to get back the jobs they lost by not following orders at the start of the offensive. The details of the case were declared classified information. A similar trial was held behind closed doors involving 25 soldiers from a Vladikavkaz garrison.

“There are more and more cases of members of the National Guard challenging their dismissals in court,” said lawyer Mikhail Benyash, mentioning this latest case on his personal Telegram channel. The lawyer filed the first known complaint for an allegedly unfair expulsion from the army. On the second day of the conflict, a platoon leader and 11 soldiers from the Russian Plastun detachment refused to cross the border, claiming that they did not have valid passports to travel abroad and that their duties were limited to the territory of the Russian Federation. Subsequently, they demanded in court that their dismissals be declared void.

The tension caused by the offensive in Ukraine has also led to enlistment points being vandalized. At least a dozen of them have been set on fire throughout the country since the “special operation” began on February 24, according to The Moscow Times, a newspaper declared a foreign agent by the authorities. On the weekend of May 15 alone, three centers were attacked with Molotov cocktails, several of them located in the Southern Military District, one of the most actively involved in the conflict.

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