‘Conscription by stealth’ as Russia looks to boost numbers in Ukraine

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Russian soldier, Mariupol - Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters
Russian soldier, Mariupol - Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

When 18-year-old Timofey Baranov’s studies were interrupted by a text from an unknown number this week, he suspected it was a practical joke.

“You are requested to present yourself at the conscription office for an inspection of your military records,” the message said, adding the time and the place at which he should attend.

Because he is still at school, Mr Baranov was confused to receive the message as his student status exempts him from being drafted.

“I blocked it immediately,” he told The Telegraph. “I thought it was a hoax. Then someone sent me a link to a news story and I saw that real people are getting the same draft notices across Russia.”

Russia is estimated to have lost one third of its combat forces since the beginning of its invasion of Ukraine, and it increasingly appears Vladimir Putin is employing stealth mobilisation to shore up his battered army.

Putin has yet to announce a full mobilisation, which Western analysts had predicted he would do, but mounting evidence points to an ongoing covert campaign to entice young men to serve.

Agora, a major Russian association of human rights lawyers, has fielded more than 2,000 calls and messages since March, with the increase attributed to young men fearing imminent conscription.

“The number of cases linked to mobilisation has been growing exponentially in the past two weeks – this is the only thing we’ve been dealing with in recent days,” Pavel Chikov, the head of Agora, said in a statement.

Social media is littered with posts by Russian men telling how they have been ordered to attend their local conscription office so their military files can be updated.

“This is not a mobilisation yet but rather laying the groundwork for a mobilisation,” Alexei Tabalov, a human rights activist who runs a hotline for conscripts, told The Telegraph.

“No one is snatching people on the street and sending them off to serve. The defence ministry is trying to estimate how many people they can put together if the need arises.”

Mr Baranov, a student from Nizhny Novgorod who is applying to study linguistics at a Moscow university, followed his parents’ advice and ignored the text from the conscription office because it was not a formal request. He subsequently discovered that three more boys from his class had been approached this week.

His friend Yegor, who received a similar message on the same day, saw it as a direct invitation to go and fight in Ukraine.

“I don’t think anyone wants to go there,” he said. “They’re probably going to ask you to sign a contract and you will be stationed at the border. Then next thing you know you are in the trenches in Donetsk.”

Russian soldiers patrol in Mariupol - AP Photo
Russian soldiers patrol in Mariupol - AP Photo

Men twice the boys’ age have also been receiving the messages.

Igor Razumov, a Russian researcher who now lives in Germany, received a similar notice to his registered address in Moscow. The 44-year-old has served as a conscript and should not be liable for any military service unless a war is declared.

Conscription offices have regularly checked and updated their databases, but the sudden flurry of notices is unusual.

Once a young man arrives at a conscription office he can be formally served with a draft notice, and not showing up will incur criminal charges. Someone who is old enough to be a reservist can be served a mobilisation order that lists his unit of deployment in case of war.

Recruitment websites in Russia are full of vacancies searching for “mobilisation specialists”. Hundreds of vacancies posted by private companies say a successful candidate would handle the military records of male employees and work to secure deferrals – something companies might need in a time of war.

Military experts have said a mass mobilisation is unlikely to turn the tide of the Ukraine conflict, but the defence ministry’s outreach to ordinary Russians indicates worries about manpower.

“Russia does not have a system to take in, train and successfully employ a mass mobilised force. The question is to what extent they can piecemeal raise manning,” Michael Kofman, the director of Russian Studies at the Centre for a New American Security, said.

“It is quite possible that eventually Moscow will be forced to conduct what constitutes a partial mobilisation, whether declared or undeclared.”

A chasm between public support for the Russian army and willingness to take up arms and fight in Ukraine is widening. Recently, growing fears of a mass mobilisation have spilled over into a flurry of arson ttacks on conscription offices, including three in less than a week.

The archive of the conscription office in the Moscow suburb of Shchyolkovo was reportedly damaged by fire on Tuesday night after a man hurled a Molotov cocktail into its ground-floor window.

The tally of casualties in Ukraine reveals that most of the troops who have died came from some of Russia’s poorest regions, where a military career is often the only way out of poverty.

In recent weeks, the defence ministry has started to advertise short-term contracts, specifying that successful candidates will be deployed in Ukraine for “at least three months to take part in the special military operation to de-militarise and de-Nazify Ukraine”.

The monthly salary on those contracts hovers around 200,000 roubles, as much as a Russian from the provinces can hope to make in several months if not in a whole year.

Makeshift conscription offices in trailers and tents have been spotted in several Russian cities. Yegor, from Nizhny Novgorod, came across a mobile office in a park earlier this month – but did not notice much enthusiasm among locals.

“I’m going to sit it out. You sign that contract and next day they put you on a plane to Belgorod,” he said. “I don’t want that.”

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