A history of forced conscription Russia's first military draft of 2022 ends soon. That could spell danger for recent college graduates.
Russia’s first military draft of 2022 will end on July 15. Since it began on April 1, enlistment offices have largely avoided using Chechen War-era methods of rounding up draftees, but that doesn’t mean they haven't broken laws. Protecting young people from forced recruitment is becoming increasingly difficult; if an enlistment office is given instructions to send a specific person to the army, there’s effectively no way to prevent the person from having to serve. Meduza looks at how Russia’s most recent conscription has played out.
Just days after Russia launched its full-scale of invasion Ukraine on February 24, news broke that conscripts — young men serving their year of mandatory military service — were fighting in the war. Russian law prohibits sending conscripts into combat without at least four months of training and a contract, and the Russian authorities denied the reports; Putin even personally vowed that no conscripts would be sent to Ukraine.
One conscript, Damur Mustafayev, was taken captive by Ukrainian troops in the early days of the war. His father, Sobirjon Mustafayev, told Meduza that Damur was drafted in June 2021. Damur, who had no interest in a military career, refused to sign a contract. In February, however, he told his father that he and his fellow service members had “been signed up as contract fighters.”
On March 9, the Russian Defense Ministry acknowledged that conscripts had been sent to fight in the “special military operation”; soon after, ministry representatives claimed that “practically all [conscript] soldiers were withdrawn to Russian territory” after the “discovery” (though some of them were taken captive), and Putin ordered the military prosecutor to investigate why they had been sent in the first place.
On April 1, the Russian army began drafting young men ages 18-27. The draft period will end on July 15. The draft order that Putin signed on March 31 called for 134,500 people to be drafted (7,000 more than in the fall of 2021). Before the most recent draft began, a number of young men received spontaneous conscription notices after taking part in anti-war rallies, leading many to worry that the authorities were resorting to an old tactic: the roundup.
‘One boy swallowed a key’
Russian military relied heavily on roundups in the 1990s and 2000s — especially from 2002 to 2006, at the peak of the Second Chechen War, Soldiers' Mothers Committee Executive Secretary Valentina Melnikova told Meduza. “Cops would stand in the metro stations and demand to see the documents of all [men] of military age. Everyone who didn’t have a draft card would be taken to the nearest enlistment office or military base,” she said.
In this war, Melnikova doesn’t expect the authorities to be that brazen. “But I still tell guys [of military age] to be careful. Because if they catch you out there, there’s nothing you can do,” she said.
Melnikova recalled young men resorting to extreme measures to avoid enlisting. “There was one boy who swallowed a key so they would take him to the doctor. Others cut their own veins,” she said.
No roundups this season — almost
Arsen Levinson, a lawyer who works with conscripts, only received three requests related to roundups during the most recent draft. “These were isolated cases,” he told Meduza. One of them was in the Ivanovo region: a young man went to a military office for a medical examination and wasn’t allowed to leave. In a separate case, officials tried to conscript two students in Moscow immediately after their final university exams. “But they agreed with the commission’s decision [after their initial appeal], and they didn’t want to spend more time appealing it. They went to serve. There’s nothing else I can do to help them,” said Levinson.
Vyacheslav (name changed), a lawyer who works on a hotline for conscripts and soldiers, said he only received two reports of roundups this season. In both cases, young men were forcibly sent to the military commissariat and conscripted there. According to Vyacheslav, one of the men had been granted an academic deferment, but it didn’t help: recruitment officers removed the document from his record.
Another man was taken directly from his university dormitory by police, Levinson said. He had graduated on June 30, and his theoretical legal right to a post-graduation leave period didn’t help him. Officials took his documents, brought him to the enlistment office, and sent him off to serve.
Roundups generally occur at the end of the draft when the military’s “goal hasn’t been reached,” Valentina Melnikova from the Soldiers' Mothers Committee told Meduza. A lawyer who works on the hotline for conscripts agreed: the military’s “goal” is the main reason people are forcibly drafted. If recruitment officers fail to reach their target number of conscripts, they might “take students who have just graduated,” said Melnikova. “Recent graduates are usually left alone because they have a right to apply to college. But that doesn’t mean they have an official deferral — when push comes to shove, they get pulled into the army, too.”
“Recruitment officers’ ‘goal’ is usually reached at the expense of upperclassmen from colleges and universities. They get called in for medical exams, which are usually done ahead of time [before their deferrals expire], in violation of official policy, and a decision on whether to draft them is made soon after. As a result, roundups are more common during the fall and winter conscription season, when the enlistment offices don’t have a ‘reserve,’” said St. Petersburg Soldiers' Mothers Committee head Oxana Paramonova.
Conscription officers conduct roundups for several reasons. In addition to each collection point having a target number of conscripts to meet, relying on roundups can also be a result of military commissioners failing to do their jobs correctly.
By law, each conscript is supposed to receive a summons in person — and to sign for it upon receipt. But a lawyer who works on the conscript hotline told Meduza that despite this rule, for years, Russian officials have simply left draft summonses in conscripts’ mailboxes and hoped the men would later report to the enlistment office.
If a conscript fails to show up, recruitment officers assume that he’s deliberately dodging the draft and ask the police to bring him in. “But calling a conscript on the phone, leaving the summons in his mailbox, or giving it to his relatives are not proper ways to notify a citizen of his duty to appear at the military commissariat. In those cases, officials’ actions are illegal,” said the lawyer.
If officials have specific instructions, there’s nothing you can do
Despite the lack of legislation allowing the police to forcibly bring people to recruitment offices and force them to enlist, it still happens.
In 2020, for example, Anti-Corruption Foundation employee Artyom Ionov was forcibly brought to a recruitment office and drafted into the army despite his asthma, which is sufficient cause for exemption from serving in the military.
The highest-profile case of forced conscription this year so far has been that of Ivan Fedotov, a 25-year-old goalkeeper for Russia’s national hockey team, who signed a contract in May to play for the Philadelphia Flyers. On July 1, he was detained in St. Petersburg.
According to Fontanka, the instruction to detain Fedotov came from the military prosecutor, who had “sufficient grounds to consider Fedotov a draft avoider.” Investigators reportedly waited from the early morning in various parts of the city Fedotov was known to frequent. He was eventually detained on his way out of an ice arena and taken to the enlistment office in an unmarked vehicle. “There were specific instructions [to conscript him]. Those situations are difficult to fight,” Oxana Paramonova told Meduza.
According to Paramonova, Fedotov’s conscription was improper not because he’s an athlete but because officials violated the rules for informing a person of his duty to appear at the enlistment office. “Fedotov has a right to oppose the decision to draft him and to appeal it. But forced conscription deprives him of that right,” she said.
Valentina Melnikova told Meduza that while the current conscription is almost over, “there’s still time” for officials to resort to illegal tactics to meet their quotas — and roundups tend to happen in the final days of a draft.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale