‘State Services R Us’ Building a ‘digital gulag’ for draft-eligible Russians is turning into a major headache for the government IT contractor
Earlier this month, Russia’s State Duma and Federation Council passed a new military conscription law. The bill, approved on an expedited basis, was designed to close the remaining loopholes that until then permitted the most determined of draft-dodgers to escape military duty. The new law enables the Defense Ministry to distribute digital summonses, also restricting the draft evaders’ ability to leave the country. Russia is now set to develop a unified digital register containing comprehensive personal data on every male citizen subject to military duty. Observers were quick to call the new system a “digital gulag,” but government officials greeted the new data project with enthusiasm, not least thanks to its gargantuan anticipated budget. Meduza’s correspondents Andrey Pertsev and Svetlana Reiter investigate who will benefit from building a new digital system of mass control.
Russia’s Ministry of Digital Development is undertaking a new task, thanks to the new conscription law requiring the creation of a unified information system for comprehensive data on every male citizen subject to military duty. The data, it’s expected, will be at the Defense Ministry’s fingertips during the regular seasonal conscription drives, as well as in the event of possible mass mobilization.
An informed source in the government, as well as a second speaker in the telecommunications sector, both told Meduza that Rostelecom, the Digital Development Ministry’s largest data systems contractor, is bruited to be tasked with the new government data project.
Two government insiders were able to further tell Meduza that the Rostelecom subsidiary RT Labs will be directly responsible for building the military conscription register. On April 11, when the new conscription law was passed by legislators, RT Labs was quick to post a number of new jobs available in the company, including, for instance, a data engineer position specifically mentioning work on the state bureaucracy website Gosuslugi (“State Services”). Under the new law, this website has a critical new function of distributing electronic draft summonses via its built-in messaging system.
RT Labs already services Gosuslugi and other state data systems, as well as the Unified Identification and Authentication System (“ESIA”) used by a number of branches of the digital state bureaucracy. RT Labs’ motto, “State Services R Us,” is quite clear about its role in government data systems.
The present CEO of RT Labs, Tengiz Alania, joined the company after serving as the deputy director of Moscow’s Regional Center for Information and Communication Technologies, another data-management enterprise servicing the government. Another top executive still working at the center, Evgeny Kovnatsky, shares a full name with someone who had been in charge of Donbas Post, a postal service started by the Russia-sponsored separatist governments in Ukraine back in 2015.
Another major player in the creation of the conscription register is Maksut Shadayev, the former RT Labs CEO and now Russia’s Minister of Digital Development. Shadayev’s career trajectory included a stint as an advisor to Vladimir Putin’s Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko, and later a stretch of working at Rostelecom. When appointed minister in 2020, Shadayev championed the Gosuslugi Stop Coronavirus QR-code verification program. Early in his appointment, he also proposed giving the state law-enforcement and security apparatus complete access to Russian citizens’ personal data. (Later, he denied having ever suggested this, claiming others had misunderstood him.)
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A government insider who spoke with Meduza told us that federal officials led by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and his deputy, Dmitry Chernyshenko, greeted the idea of a unified conscription register with “great enthusiasm.” It was Mishustin, after all, who had digitized Russia’s tax service prior to being appointed prime minister. During a closed meeting within the Presidential Administration, Mishustin and Chernyshenko assured the Defense Ministry that the comprehensive register the military wanted could be created in practice. “Of course we can! We’d be happy to make it,” they said there and then.
This eagerness, the same speaker tells us, can hardly be separated from the truly gargantuan budget reputed to be allocated for the new data project. This is likely to be “tens of billions or rubles,” he says. Forbes Russia also estimates that the project will cost “billions of rubles” (that is, hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars).
A telecom industry insider who spoke with Meduza believes the contract is going to be a major “headache” for Shadayev and his team. “The deadlines are unreal, and the responsibility is huge. The FSB is overseeing all the work, but if the deadline is broken, they’ll just blame the Digital Development Ministry and Rostelecom,” he says. (Shadayev himself had said that the earliest the new system could be expected to go live would be the fall 2023 conscription drive.)
Despite the hasty adoption of the new conscription law, the Kremlin insiders who spoke with Meduza still disclaim any knowledge of any high-level talk about another round of mobilization. At the same time, mobilization and mandatory conscription appear to be the only way to achieving the Defense Ministry’s recruitment goals, particularly if its plan really is to recruit 400,000 men, as reported by Bloomberg back in March.
A government insider in one of Russia’s largest regions explains that the Kremlin is still hopeful about recruiting enough contract soldiers to avoid a new round of mobilization. “We have ads and banners everywhere,” he says, adding that “the task” is to “maximally motivate” men to join the army.
An informed source close to the Putin administration says that around 10,000 contract servicemen were recruited since last winter in the Moscow region alone. “People keep coming in,” he said, adding: “The draft offices see 200–300 people coming in on their own, every day. They come for the money.”