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‘A diverse, broad process’ Why the Kremlin wants to reform Russia’s seasonal conscription and boost the army’s numbers, and what it could mean for ordinary citizens

Source: Meduza
Kirill Kukhmar / TASS

Interview by Kristina Safonova. Translation by Emily Laskin.

At a meeting with Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu proposed “gradually” changing the age range during which men serve their mandatory year of military service: the minimum age will rise from 18 to 21, while the maximum age will move from 27 to 30. The Russian authorities also plan to increase the size of the army from 1.15 million to 1.5 million soldiers. Additionally, Shoigu said men completing their mandatory service, who are called “conscripts” in the Russian system, should be given the option to sign a contract with the military starting on their first day of mandatory service (it is legal to send contract soldiers, but not conscripts, into combat). Putin expressed his support for these “structural changes in the armed forces.” Meduza spoke to a military lawyer (whose name we’ve omitted for security reasons) from the coalition Call for Conscience about how these changes might affect Russians who are subject to conscription.

How do you think Shoigu’s proposal to change the age limits for conscripts will affect the conscripts themselves? Is there any understanding of why it was necessary to make these changes?

For some, this question [of conscription] can now be put off, but for some who thought they’d managed to avoid conscription, the issue is now relevant.

And of course, the proposal is aimed at bolstering the so-called “conscript resources,” meaning the number of citizens whom the Russian Defense Ministry can conscript into military service. Because between the ages of 18 and 21, a significant portion of citizens defer their mandatory military service. At 18, they finish high school and go to college (there is almost no competition [for admission] to college) or university, which allows them to defer conscription for another few years.

Education is one of the most routine reasons for a deferral. That means 18- to 21-year-olds are not often conscripted. But at 27, as a rule, that reason for deferral doesn’t exist. Twenty-seven-year-olds use another reason: their families. In 2008, however, authorities took away the possibility of deferral for having one child (having two or more is relatively uncommon). And then, 27- to 30-year-olds will soon be [a generation] beyond the demographic crisis [when Russia’s population declined by 1.8 million in the 1990s].

It turns out that the Defense Ministry will benefit from raising the age for conscription: the number of citizens they’ll be able to call up for mandatory service will increase.

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Do you think raising the minimum conscription age from 18 to 21 might be a PR move by the authorities to calm the population? At the beginning of the war, yesterday’s schoolchildren were sent to the front, which can undermine people’s trust in the state.

There really is infantilization of the youth. At 18-20, people still often lack any real life experience, and their ideas about life can be more youthful, impractical in some senses. Young people that age are treated to a large extent like children. […] I, too, was struck by the childish faces of those captured [Russians sent to the war in Ukraine] — basically 18- to 20-year-old teenagers. Of course, in this sense, it’s a positive change that they’ll be conscripted later.

However, it would be good if we just didn’t conscript, neither earlier nor later, those who don’t want to participate in this. This whole mandatory conscription system — whether at 20 years old or at 30 — is an archaic institution and needs to be changed in other ways. Don’t expand the age limits for conscription; on the contrary, shrink them. And develop an option for civil service, rather than military.

The military and Russian youth

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The military and Russian youth

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We heard from Defense Minister Shoigu that these changes will be adopted “gradually.” How quickly do you think they could come into effect?

By the next conscription campaign [in the spring of 2023] — fully. There’s talk of amending the federal law “On Military Obligation and Military Service,” as well as a number of bylaws. There have been cases of amendments to federal laws being adopted in a day. But even with a more conventional procedure, [these changes] can be fully implemented: if there’s political will, [it will happen] by the next conscription drive.

I’m afraid that here [with the proposed changes to conscription ages] they’ll say one thing and do another. Raising [the conscription] age will happen without any “gradualness” — they’ll immediately raise it to 30. But the lower one [from 18 to 20] will change “gradually.” The result will be a way to expand conscript resources. This will be clear if and when they introduce federal draft legislation.

The authorities are currently planning to increase the size of the army to 1.5 million, meaning they’ll conscript another 350,000 people. This is happening amid rumors of a probable “second wave” of mobilization. Could the authorities try to “hide” mobilization this way?

Mobilization is still a bit of a different process than conscription for mandatory service. [Mobilization] assumes that people are sent to the troops who have experience from prior service and are in the reserves with some [military] specialty. But conscription assumes that people have absolutely no experience.

I can’t yet answer the question of whether it’s possible to increase the army to the stated size by expanding [the pool of people] who can be conscripted for mandatory service. It doesn’t seem very realistic to me.

We are tasked with conscription every fall and spring by presidential decree — it used to be around 140,000–150,000 [men], so 300,000 a year. In the last conscription drives (in spring and fall of this year), there were big problems even fulfilling that plan. Especially in the major cities — Moscow, St. Petersburg, Volgograd, Vladivostok — we see cases of roundups and one-day conscription, which indicates that the commissariats can’t cope with the task in their normal operations. If they have to do twice as much, that’s not very realistic.

As I understand it, increasing the size of the armed forces will happen through various means — by a big recruitment drive for contract soldiers, maybe by using [residents] of occupied territories. [...] Maybe the creation of new formations within the armed forces. I think it will be a diverse, broad process.

You already mentioned alternative civil service. That’s one way to avoid the risk of participating in combat. Do you think that 18- to 20-year-olds who don’t want to participate in the war should now leave Russia urgently, or should they think of some other plan to protect themselves?

It’s still early to talk about who needs to take urgent action. It’s still only words, not even a law. These changes still haven’t been adopted, and we don’t know when they will be adopted. People who are afraid of being called up for combat — men in the reserves, conscripts — I think everyone who could leave, in these nine months of war, already left or is planning to. In that sense, I don’t think the changes that were announced will seriously influence that process.

Interview by Kristina Safonova

Translation by Emily Laskin

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