Russia is taking emergency measures to recruit troops
meN September Russian television listeners will be treated to a new one-hour show every day. A name is still to be decided, but the producers are already choosing the team: wives and mothers of military soldiers. The participants must evoke the bravery of their husbands and sons and tell tearful stories that will support the Kremlin’s plans to throw more young men into the meat machine that is the war with Ukraine.
Last September Vladimir Putin shocked the Russian public by announcing a “partial transition”, breaking an earlier promise that citizens could watch the war from the comfort of their homes, without the need for people to impose compulsory military service, or to call up reservists. But the Ukrainian counter-offensive, which liberated areas around Kharkiv and Kherson, prompted Mr Putin to call up the reserves, something not seen since the second world war. Refusal to surrender when summoned, surrender to the enemy, and desertion became crimes punishable by ten years’ imprisonment.
That first wave of movement produced at least 300,000 reinforcements. Poorly trained and poorly equipped, many of them have since been killed or injured. Those who survive must be rounded up, as Ivan Popov, a major general, recently said in a message released after he was sacked. The withdrawal of the Wagner Group from the battlefield in June has exacerbated the shortage. So in the last few weeks the Kremlin has gone through a series of laws designed to increase the number of workers it can employ. As Andrei Kartapolov, head of the Russian parliament’s defense committee and author of the legislation, told lawmakers, “This law was written for a major war, for a general movement. And you can already smell that big war in the air. “
“In the past they went for low-hanging fruit,” says Grigory Sverdlin, who runs Idite Lesom (“Get Lost”), a volunteer organization that helps people avoid fighting for Russia. “Now they are casting the net much wider. ” The number of requests for his help has more than doubled since last spring.
The number of people needed will depend on the progress of the Ukrainian forces. But while Mr. Putin may not have enough troops to take more land, he is making sure he has enough to keep Russia fighting as long as he remains in power. “War is his only legacy now. It can reduce or strengthen it. But he can’t finish it,” says a weather observer of Russian politics who is still in the country.
Unlike the Ukrainian leaders, who have been trying to preserve lives, the Russian army relies on what it considers an unstable human resource that can be thrown into the war, guided by a centuries-old saying: “Russian women will reproduce more.”
However, there are political risks in the transition. Last September it sparked protests across Russia. Military recruitment centers were torched and hundreds of thousands of people fled the country. A month later, after reaching his target, Mr. Putin told Russians that the move was “finished and over. Full stop.” That, too, turned out to be a lie. The president never signed a legal document ending the forced hiring. But to calm things down, the flow of call papers increased dramatically. The Kremlin hoped to make up the numbers by signing up more contract soldiers, who, in theory at least, fight voluntarily in exchange for pay. Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister, set a target of up to 400,000 new contracts.
Billboards have since appeared around Russia. A slick video advertises the benefits of swapping jobs as a taxi driver, fitness instructor or supermarket security guard for a hero’s job. “You are a man. So be one,” he explains. Big advertising budgets, however, have not translated into large numbers of volunteers. Officials say 117,000 people had signed up to new contracts by June Independent observers, such as Mr. Sverdlin, say the actual figures are likely to be less than half that.
But the Kremlin has begun to lay the groundwork for a more effective move. Previously, retainers could only be held liable for service once they had physically received their summons. Thousands demonstrated this by moving out of their registered addresses; some fled the country. But since April, reservists have been held accountable from the moment the recruitment commission issues the notice, whether they receive it or not. Call papers can now be served electronically or posted on the government’s web portal. In place of the old dusty files of bookkeepers, a new electronic record is being set up. Having multiple children, or disabled dependents, is no longer a reason for exemption.
From the day notice is given it is now illegal for a conscript to leave the country. Those who hide inside Russia quickly find themselves outside the law, unable to drive a caror conduct financial transactions, including payments mortgage. The Kremlin has also extended the age limit for reservists who can be called up. And to make up the numbers, he has drawn people out of the ranks of those called up for their mandatory year of military service; there are two intakes per year, chosen from people aged 18 to 27.
Sending those doing military service to the front line has been considered a taboo since the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the 1995-96 Chechen war, explains Sergei Krivenko of Memorial, a human rights group. prohibited that monitors movement. By breaking this practice there is a risk of backlash from the mothers of the young people. But the Kremlin has found a way to do it secretly, by pushing those doing military service to sign contracts with the military, which formally turns them into volunteers.
The defense ministry says the latest military service call brought in just over 140,000 young men; the actual figure is likely to be lower. Up to half of them could be induced to sign a contract through threats, coercion and lies, says Mr Krivenko. Young men are reported to have little knowledge of their rights and limited options to contact their families or lawyers to sign a contract, confirms one young man from southern Russia who managed to abandon with the help of Idite Lesom.
In the past such a contract could only be signed after three months of military service. Mr. Putin’s laws passed in April eliminated that restriction. “If it wasn’t for fear and coercion, there wouldn’t be many people left in the army,” the young man says. There is also a lot of lying. “They are told that they could be sent to the front anyway, but if they sign a contract at least they will get paid. They are not told that the contract they entered cannot be terminated. Basically this turns these men into serfs,” said Mr. Krivenko. More importantly, once the young men complete their military service they enter a group of reservists that can be used through a transfer. In July, the Kremlin passed a law that increases the size of the pool. A new law raises the maximum age for compulsory service from 27 to 30, while keeping the minimum at 18.
One factor that limits the movement is the number of training centers. Even worse is the lack of officers. That is why the Kremlin raised the age of senior professionals who can be called up to the age of 65. Pavel Luzin, a visiting scholar at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, says that “they are combing through the generation Last Soviet.” ■
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