‘Life here is going downhill’ How forced mobilization has transformed the Donbas ‘people’s republics’
The Kremlin-controlled “people’s republics” in the Donbas have mobilized tens of thousands of people since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February. More than four months later, these conscripts are faced with a lack of medical care, military gear, and even food. Relatives who dare to speak up on their behalf are persecuted by the security services. Meanwhile, utility companies and mines in the “DNR” and “LNR” are experiencing disruptions due to personnel shortages. And the risk of man-made disasters in the Donbas is higher than ever before. For Meduza, journalist Gleb Golod reports on how mass mobilization has sapped the Donbas.
‘The city became deserted’
On February 21, Anna’s husband Andrey (names changed) received a summons from an enlistment office in Luhansk. Andrey assumed that his employer, the central bank of the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic,” would grant him an exemption from active duty (the only legal way for men aged 18–55 to avoid the draft in the “LNR”).
Instead, the enlistment office kept calling and eventually sent a summons to the bank’s HR department. At this point, Andrey decided to report for military training. Anna hasn’t seen her husband since.
“He was here [in Luhansk] for another week, and then all [of the conscripts] were taken across the border with Russia at night by train. A few days later, they wound up in Valuyki, in the Belgorod region, along with Russian contract soldiers. A week and a half later, our guys were transferred to [Ukraine’s] Kharkiv region. They’ve been there ever since. They’re tossed from village to village and acting as ‘cannon fodder’,” Anna explained. “All I know is that [my husband and his comrades] are digging trenches. The rest ‘isn’t telephone conversation’,” she added.
Anna and Andrey talk on the phone once every two days. According to her, very few people in Luhansk volunteered to go fight against Ukraine. As a result, the military began forcibly rounding up all the men they could, including “bums and alkies.”
“The city became deserted the minute they began grabbing everyone off the streets. It was quiet for about two months, then gradually all [of the men of military age] started to come out,” Anna recalled. “Now it’s summer and the men have come out of their houses, everyone’s going out to barbecue.”
According to Eastern Human Rights Group, around 140,000 people had been forcibly mobilized in the Donbas by mid-June. The group’s founder, Pavel Lisyansky, said that as of April, 48,000 of these conscripts had been sent into battle — and some were wounded or killed. He also suggests that this number could have doubled since then.
‘They nearly broke their owns arms and legs’
After Anna’s husband was conscripted, she learned from an acquaintance who managed to avoid the draft that a $1,500 bribe would have been enough to keep Andrey from being sent to the front. Supposedly, in exchange for this particular sum, a conscript in the “DNR” or “LNR” can be assigned to a unit stationed in Donetsk or Luhansk.
Meduza was unable to speak to anyone who avoided the draft thanks to a bribe. However, a source close to the authorities in Donetsk said that this practice exists. According to this person, the necessary sum varies from $1,000 to $2,000: people “drop off” the money at the enlistment office, the money is distributed among the officers in charge of military units, and then these officers give the conscript in question a “domestic” assignment. (The average salary in the Donbas “people’s republics” is less than 23,000 rubles per month, the equivalent of $365.)
According to Anna, some people tried to dodge conscription on medical grounds (“they nearly broke their own arms and legs”), but this proved fruitless. However, she did know of at least three men from her husband’s unit who were sent back to the rear for health reasons: “For a certain price tag they stayed here [in Luhansk] and they’re still on ‘sick leave’.”
Iryna (name changed), who also lives in Luhansk, said that her husband was sent to fight in the Kharkiv region despite the fact that he has health problems. Igor (name also changed), who works as an engineer at a steel plant, wasn’t granted an exemption from active duty.
During the first three months of the war, Iryna was able to reach Igor by phone. She lost contact with him on May 23, after his regiment was allegedly deployed for military drills (in the midst of the ongoing war). On June 1, Iryna learned from an acquaintance that her husband was in the hospital — but she wasn’t able to find out why he had been admitted or where he was.
“He has varicose veins. His leg swells up, there’s serious problems with his circulation. It’s safe to say that his leg isn’t completely healthy. And he was sent to fight like that. I think that when he was digging trenches, his leg finally gave out and that’s why he ended up in the hospital,” Iryna speculated.
On June 11, Iryna’s husband called and said that he had been deemed unfit for service. But a few hours later he called back and said he was being sent to the front in Severodonetsk. (The battle for this city went on until the end of June, when it fell to the Russian army.) Ten days later, Igor was brought to a hospital in Luhansk for treatment. He underwent an operation, but is still in poor condition due to inflammation in his leg. He told Iryna that by the time he left, only eight men remained from his forty-person company.
“Our free medicine for soldiers turned out to be far from free,” Iryna told Meduza. “We even paid for the bandages and [surgical] blade.”
‘There was one flak jacket for 17 men’
In mid-May, a video appeared online of a protest rally held by the wives of combatants from the 206th Regiment of the Luhansk “people’s militia.” The women, who were demanding a meeting with “LNR” head Leonid Pasechnik, claimed that Russian forces had withdrawn from the Kharkiv region, leaving their husbands in their positions.
A week later, the Russian television channel NTV aired a segment about a “young woman from the mining town of Antratsyt” who the Ukrainian security service had allegedly paid $300 a month to spread “provocative messages” to the relatives of mobilized Luhansk residents. The segment included footage from the protest in Luhansk, which the news channel linked to “fake news bombed into chats and [social] networks.”
According to Anna, after the video of the protest rally appeared online, agents from the Luhansk “state security ministry” (“MGB”) started showing up at the homes of members of local WhatsApp groups about mobilization. The agents offered conscripts’ family members a choice: tell them about the information circulating in the group chats (specifically, anything concerning dissatisfaction with the Kremlin’s “special military operation”) or come with them.
According to Anna, no one wanted to get in trouble with the “MGB” and so the conscripts’ relatives agreed to cooperate. The visits from law enforcement also put a stop to any attempts to hold street protests in Luhansk. Instead, as Anna explained, relatives began writing letters to the local authorities and to Russia’s ruling party, United Russia.
Anna and Iryna both said that “LNR” troops are in desperate need of gear and basic necessities. The two women said that buying clothes and other supplies eats up all of their husbands’ combat pay, which is up to 70,000 rubles ($1,200) per month.
“They only have the tattered caps from their uniforms, everyone was given one. There was one flak jacket and one Soviet-era helmet for 17 men — nothing else. How you can fight like that, I don’t know,” Anna fumed.
The women had to buy their husbands t-shirts, pants, socks, and even underwear — the Donbas militias don’t provide these items to their combatants. Even uniforms have to be purchased from an army surplus store.
“There are crazy queues at the local army surplus stores and prices are rising. My brother is also at war, but in our region. [When he came home] on leave two weeks ago, a uniform cost 3,500 rubles [$60]. He went [to the store] a few days ago and now it’s 5,000 rubles [$86]. We give them all the clothes they need ourselves,” Iryna complained.
Iryna said that soldiers’ wives also include tea, coffee, shampoo, toothpaste, and sweets in the packages they send to the front. “They don’t even have bread there but sending [a package] is problematic,” she said. “They’re living without electricity, so we send them dry fuel and candles. Wet wipes are also a must because they often have to make do without water.”
Conscripts’ families were hoping for a troop rotation, but at the military unit’s headquarters, Anna and Iryna were told that their husbands wouldn’t return until “everything is over.”
According to Anna, one of her friends even wrote a letter to the Russian Defense Ministry, asking for the men to be sent back from the front. The letter she received in response (which was made available to Meduza) said that according to Russia’s cooperation agreement with the “LNR,” Moscow doesn't have the right to interfere in the “republic’s” domestic affairs.
“Everyone hopes that the border with Russia will be removed. The populace is small and naive. Life here is going downhill,” Anna said. “Prices for everything are rising. We’re integrating with Russia at full speed. Ukraine definitely won’t be here anymore. I’m counting on peace, I don’t care with whom.”
Sign up for Meduza’s daily newsletter
A digest of Russia’s investigative reports and news analysis. If it matters, we summarize it.
‘Money was scrupulously stolen’
All of Meduza’s sources said that the mobilization campaign in the Donbas has intensified in recent weeks. Some men haven’t left their homes since the beginning of the war, but it appears that fewer are trying to draft dodge. Asked about the atmosphere in Luhansk, Anna simply said: “It sucks.”
Meduza’s source close to the “DNR” authorities called mobilization their “most terrible crime.” According to him, since 2014, the “DNR” leadership has consistently reported that the Donetsk “people’s militia” was almost at full strength (96–97 percent), when in reality it was a little more than half staffed. The discrepancy, he said, was the result of rampant corruption:
“Money was scrupulously received and stolen. And when it came time to fight, the staff of the people’s militia was urgently recruited from [among] ‘the sick and the poor.’ No medical examinations, no training,” the source explained. “And this mass of untrained, unequipped, and unmotivated people was thrown into the assault on Volnovakha, Mariupol, and Maryinka. Where [the Ukrainian Armed Forces] had been preparing for war for eight years, […] people trained by specialists from NATO countries and armed with the latest weapons! What is this if not a crime?”
Citing his sources in the “people’s republics,” Pavel Lisyansky said that in 2021, Russia allocated funds for recruiting and training reservists in the Donbas. The money, he explained, was brought to the “DNR” and “LNR” in cash. This was corroborated by Meduza’s source close to the authorities in Donetsk.
According to Lisyansky, reservists were paid 3,000 to 5,000 rubles ($50–$86) to take part in military training, and were then registered as reservists in case of hostilities. However, he’s convinced that a chunk of the allocated funds were stolen — leaving the “people’s militias” short on reservists. “There were dead souls on the lists. Forced mobilization is a consequence of the money stolen during training,” Lisyansky maintained.
The “LNR” authorities published executive orders on military training for reservists in May, June, August, September, and October 2021 and in January 2022. “DNR” representatives ignored Meduza’s questions on the subject.
Pollution and explosions
After more than four months of all-out war, “DNR” and “LNR” residents are facing serious problems with utilities. Nearly all of Meduza’s sources complained about issues with water, gas, and electricity supplies. What’s more, these problems persist in areas where there are no active hostilities.
As it turns out, the damage the war has inflicted upon infrastructure in the Donbas is being compounded by forced mobilization. Indeed, almost all “state” enterprises are experiencing acute personnel shortages due to conscription. According to Meduza’s source close to the “DNR” authorities, up to 75 percent of the workforce from Donetsk enterprises has been mobilized.
Pavel Lisyansky explained that employees of “state” enterprises were swept up during the first wave of mobilization, from February 21–24, and now make up 80 percent of those forcibly mobilized. Now, personnel shortages are affecting not just infrastructure enterprises, but also mines.
According to Lisyansky, there are 27 operational coal mines in areas controlled by the “DNR” and “LNR.” However, they are all currently idle due to personnel shortages caused by mobilization, and coal production has fallen five-fold compared to last year. As Lisyansky warned, the idling of the mines could lead to a man-made disaster in the Donbas, such as water contamination or a methane explosion.
Yuri Bubunets, a former lecturer in the Department of Mining Development at Donbas State Technical University, also told Meduza that these are the main ecological threats idle mines pose. “After the mobilization, a large number of service personnel were taken from the mines,” Bubunets explained. “[And] when there’s no one underground to service the systems for pumping out water and gas, pollution and explosions happen at the surface level.”
Follow Meduza on Twitter.
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart