‘They’re stationed in front like targets’ Russia is sending untrained conscripts to defend its border in Belgorod
At the start of September 2022, the Russian authorities began sending conscripts in large numbers to the country’s Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine. Technically, the young men are stationed “outside of the conflict zone,” as is required by law. In reality, however, they spend their days digging trenches and hiding from shellfire in dugouts, according to journalists from the independent outlet 7x7. The conscripts’ relatives have filed official complaints with the Defense Ministry and even held protests calling for the authorities to “pull their sons out” of the border area; officials have responded by threatening to prosecute the relatives and retaliate against the conscripts themselves. Meduza summarizes 7x7’s investigation.
For more than eight months, Russia has been sending droves of conscripts — young men serving their mandatory year of military service but officially left out of combat — to the Ukrainian border in the Belgorod region, according to 7x7. At the beginning of the war, the country’s leadership, including President Vladimir Putin himself, promised that no conscripts would be involved in the “special military operation.” But while the Belgorod conscripts aren’t officially participating in the war, they regularly come under fire; many have suffered injuries, and at least seven have been killed.
Mothers of conscripts sent to the Belgorod region told journalists that their children are the “very first” line of defense at the border and that they “even see Ukrainian soldiers.” The young men live in dugouts, wear uniforms, and stand guard like border officers. Meanwhile, the official border guards, as well as Russian National Guard officers stationed in the area, are posted behind the conscripts. “[The conscripts] stand in front of the border guards, like targets. Grown men, who are getting paid a salary and who chose to go into the border service of their own volition, are standing behind our untrained youngsters. And our boys are getting paid 2,319 [rubles, or about $30], I think it is,” one mother told 7x7.
The conscripts in the Belgorod region are indeed untrained: in the several months that the young men have been there, they’ve been taken to a shooting range just once or twice, according to their mothers, despite the fact that their superiors report weekly training sessions. One mother told 7x7 that the conscripts are assigned to job that don’t fit their training, while other said that the men are living in dugouts that they built themselves.
“They were literally sent to the field just days after taking their oath. They went to the shooting range a couple times, and that was it, suddenly they were digging trenches. They have to learn everything in the field,” said one conscript’s mother. There’s also a shortage of equipment and food, for which the men have had to rely on volunteers.
7x7 found that at least seven conscripts have been killed by shelling in the Belgorod region in recent months. The Russian authorities have not officially reported these deaths; on January 16, for example, at least three conscripts were killed, according to the outlet, and neither Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov nor the Russian Defense Ministry even publicly confirmed that day’s shelling attacks.
Mothers of conscripts sent to the Belgorod region have filed collective complaints with the Defense Ministry, the Prosecutor General’s Office, and other agencies, in addition to holding picket protests outside of the government buildings. The Russian authorities have responded by saying that nothing illegal has occurred, and that the women’s sons are located on Russian territory and thus are not involved in the war.
The mothers are also concerned that their sons could be sent directly into the combat zone now that the Kremlin has annexed Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions and officially considers them to be Russian territory.
Most of the mothers have not taken measures to help their sons out of concern that their attempts could just make the situation worse. Those who have tried to call attention to the situation have faced pressure from the state. In January, for example, State Duma deputy Tatyana Butskaya asked Russia’s Investigative Committee to open a felony case against the advocacy group the Council of Mothers and Wives for spreading “disinformation,” claiming the women who run the organization were engaged in “hostile anti-government and criminal activity.” Commanders have also threatened to retaliate against conscripts whose mothers speak out publicly.