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‘I’m panicking — where is my child?’ Conscript soldiers are being sent to fight against Ukraine, their relatives say. Here’s what their families told Meduza.
Early in the morning on February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the start of a “special military operation” on Ukrainian territory — in reality, he started a full-scale war against Ukraine. Several days earlier, Russian women began posting on social media that their sons, currently doing their mandatory military service in the Russian army, had been sent to the Ukrainian border and subsequently gone silent. Meduza spoke with some of the soldiers’ relatives to learn about their whereabouts.
Please note. This article was first published in Russian on February 24, 2022.
In mid-February, the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers started receiving calls from the parents of soldiers fulfilling their mandatory military service requirement at military units around Russia. All of the parents were saying the same thing: either their sons had been forced to sign contracts, or they’d just been sent to the territories of the military units on the border with Ukraine.
Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers director Olga Larkina told Meduza that in the past week, the majority of conscripts were sent to bases in Belgorod Region. Most of the parents either didn’t know the number of the base their child was sent to or declined to say it for fear of harming their child.
Maria, whose son is currently in his seventh month of mandatory military service, told Meduza she last heard from her son two days ago, on February 22. He’d been transferred to a military base about a hundred miles from Kharkiv (though still on Russian territory). Back in early February, he and some other conscripts had been sent to Luhansk before being sent back to Kursk, in Russia. From there, he was sent back towards Kharkiv — and that was the last thing Maria heard from him.
“My son told me he couldn’t say anything, everything was bugged and they were taking people’s phones away. As for himself, he said ‘everything’s fine,’ but what does ‘fine’ mean when you’re not allowed to say anything? And how can everything be fine in a war? I’ve been crying, not eating, just sitting there numbly and watching TV. I don’t understand how the conscripts could be sent to war,” said Maria. “I can’t wait anymore, I feel terrible. We have group chats just for the mothers of boys who are serving. And last week, one mother wrote, ‘Why are they sending conscripts?’ The next day, her son got punished by his commanding officer. How? Did they go into our chat and read it? Everything’s hush-hush, you can’t say anything.”
It’s not against the law to move conscripts from one military base to another. “Involving military personnel [who are undergoing mandatory military service] in exercises and other events held by the Defense Ministry on the territory of the Russian Federation is perfectly legal,” said the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers’ lawyer, Alexander Latynin.
Additionally, he said, conscripts who have served for less than four months can serve in other states’ territories, but their participation in any combat operations is prohibited by a presidential decree.
The family of another conscript, Vladislav, knew about these laws as well. So when Vladislav called them to say that he and his fellow servicemen had been warned about impending military exercises near Voronezh, none of them were surprised. “The fact that they were being taken somewhere new didn’t realize stand out from what others had experienced in the service before. Other people who had served were saying that they’d gone to Voronezh for exercises, so we weren’t worried, we thought it was a planned trip and things were fine,” said Vladislav’s sister Polina.
Vladislav spent the last week on the road. He and his fellow soldiers were taken to Voronezh and told they would only be there for a day. Nobody told them where they would be sent after that. The following day, the soldiers were sent to the neighboring Belgorod region. The last time Vladislav’s family heard from him was two days ago.
“He called to warn us that the place he was being sent would have a poor connection. They’re allowed to communicate with us. But yesterday he didn’t call. We chalked it up to the bad connection. But now it’s all clear,” said Polina.
‘He said they had to sign contracts, only to break them two months later’
Polina recalled how her brother spent the last month working in an office drafting contracts, but he tried not to spread that information around. “Maybe he was prohibited from talking about it, maybe I’m just imagining it, but he said they had to sign contracts, only to break them two months later. Recently, he’d been sleeping badly at night because they were putting together those contracts. Before they left for Belgorod, they woke him up at two in the morning to deal with the contracts.”
According to Polina, her brother wouldn’t tell her whether he’d signed one of the contracts himself. “Maybe he signed one. He wouldn’t have argued if they told him he had to do it. But he’s been serving for less than three months,” she told Meduza.
By law, if a conscript is willing to enter a war under contract, he can do it after three months of military service, or even as little as one month (depending on his education level), according to lawyer Alexander Latynin. In practice, however, soldiers have been coerced into signing the contracts, their relatives say.
“Mothers are telling us that their sons have been calling them and saying they’re being forced to sign contracts. We believe it’s wrong to force a conscript to become a contract soldier. But how do they force them? We don’t know. The parents who have gotten in touch have told us their sons were just taken by military officers, stamped, and that’s it — now they’re contract soldiers,” said Olga Larkina, director of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers.
According to lawyer Alexander Latynin, transferring military servicemen from conscripts to contract soldiers is a long process that entails compiling a large number of documents. “This procedure takes at least a month, and sometimes lasts up to three or four. For some servicemen, it even takes six months,” said Latynin. As far the mothers’ reports that their sons were forced under pressure to sign military service contracts, his answer was straightforward: “When they really want to and really need to, then some people, including some officials, will resort to breaking the law.”
Who can fight in Russian wars?
Servicemen who are fulfilling mandatory military service can be sent (including as part of a division, a military unit, or a formation) to execute tasks in armed conflict situations (to participate in combat) after serving in the military for at least four months and receiving special training. This is laid out in Article 3.2 of Presidential Decree No. 1237 signed on September 16, 1999, “Issues of Military Service.”
Another presidential decree, No. 419, signed on April 2, 1993, declared that conscripted military personnel’s participation in combat operations outside of Russia would only be permitted on a voluntary basis.
The clause containing the ban was overruled in 2009 by then-President Dmitry Medvedev when he passed another decree amending the law “On Defense,” which outlines the procedure for the use of armed forces outside the country. One of the possible reasons indicated for using such force is “due to an armed attack on [the military].”
A year earlier, in September 2008, Russia’s Main Military Prosecutor acknowledged that conscripted soldiers had taken part in the Russo-Georgian War (the Defense Ministry had long denied it, insisting that only contract fighters had been involved in the fighting in South Ossetia).
“Russian conscript soldiers will continue not to take part in military operations or armed conflicts. These tasks will be fulfilled exclusively by contract soldiers,” said Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, in 2013. He also added that the president had made this decision “after the completion of the counterterrorism operation in the North Caucasus.”
A week ago, Alyona’s son (name changed at her request) was hastily transferred from the Naro-Fominsk military base to a different base located 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the Ukrainian border near Belgorod: “They asked for volunteers. I said, ‘son, don’t go,’ and he said, ‘everyone’s going. What am I supposed to do, stay here alone and sweep the base?’”
Yesterday, Alyona’s son called her twice from different numbers. He said the soldiers’ phones and military IDs had been taken and that a “new batch of kids” had been brought in to the unit. He gave his power bank to two of them, and in return, they let him call his mom from their phones.
“He said, ‘there are a lot of us.’ I told him, ‘just don’t sign anything,’ but he already didn’t want to. They’d been trying to convince him [to sign] even when he was back here,” said Alyona. “They tried to convince all of the boys to sign contracts, I’d begged him not to sign. I just managed to tell him that when they give out military IDs, check to see if they gave you a stamp [indicating that you’re a contract soldier], and if they did, find a way to send me a text.”
The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers contacted the Military Prosecutor’s Office, the Defense Ministry, and the leadership of Russia’s Western Military District — the base location of most of the units that are sending conscripts to Ukraine — to ask whether conscripts had been forced to sign contracts and whether they were being sent to join military units on the border with Ukraine. Nobody gave them a definite answer.
The Defense Ministry responded that they had not been given orders to transfer conscripts to the military border with Ukraine. “They said we would need to call the commanding officer at the military unit where the situation was occurring, that all responsibility for personnel lies with the unit’s commanding officer, but getting in touch with the commanding officer is impossible,” Larkina told Meduza. The Defense Ministry also didn’t respond to Meduza’s questions about the situation with the conscripts.
Neither did they respond to the soldiers’ relatives Meduza interviewed. If the families wanted to learn about the fate of their soldiers, the authorities suggested, they could put their requests in official letters.
“I’m panicking — where is my child? I’ve tried calling every phone he’s ever called me from and they’re all turned off. My child said that even the captains’ phones were confiscated,” said Alyona. “I feel awful, I need for the children not to be there, for the children to be [back in] the places where they were drafted, not in this hell. We have a bunch of relatives from the Ukrainian side. I have nephews there and everything. How will this look? My sister and I have been crying all morning — she from there, and I from here.”
Translation by Sam Breazeale
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