“If I am conscripted, I will desert or surrender from the front lines [in Ukraine]. I don’t dream of dying in an unjustified war, something close to genocide.”
Igor, a 22-year-old from Saint Petersburg, is preparing to flee Russia after President Vladimir Putin’s announcement on 21 September of the country’s first military draft since the Second World War. He tells me over Telegram, the encrypted messaging service, that he is open to going anywhere he can, fearing that he will be ordered to join the Russian war against Ukraine. His options are limited to the few countries still open to Russian citizens, such as Georgia and Turkey.
Despite Putin describing his order as a “partial mobilisation”, the text of the official order does not limit the draft to army reservists. Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister, claimed that 300,000 people would be drafted, although the relevant section of the order – defining the number to be mobilised, according to the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov – is redacted from the published document. A source told Novaya Gazeta Europe that the missing paragraph allows authorities to call up a million people.
The mobilisation order has prompted a wave of protests and emigration. There are reported to have been long queues of cars at land crossings to Finland, Georgia and Kazakhstan. Flights to the few destinations still open to Russians – including Turkey and Armenia – are reportedly sold out. Some men report being questioned by border guards about their reasons for leaving. How strictly border controls are applied seems to vary widely: some people have faced virtually no challenge while others have reported being questioned about their military service and whether they bought flights before Putin’s declaration.
The conscription order will be enforced by local authorities, meaning its implementation will vary by region. Some analysts such as Robert English, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, suspect that the draft may fall disproportionately on the ethnic minority regions such as Buryatia in Siberia, which have already supplied a larger share of the Russian army’s soldiers than big cities, where opposition may prove more politically challenging. A video purportedly from Chechnya published on 22 September showed hundreds of young men who had apparently been conscripted.
The draft order could serve as an additional means to dissuade dissent against the invasion, with people now running the risk of being ordered to serve in Ukraine if arrested at anti-war protests. Protests took place across Russia following Putin’s declaration, with OVD-Info reporting over 1,300 arrests since the speech. At least some protesters arrested at anti-war rallies were handed conscription orders while in police custody, according to OVD-Info and those present. “All the guys I was arrested with were handed conscription orders, though I wasn’t, because I’m a woman,” Kate, who said she was held for six hours in a police station after being arrested at an anti-war protest on 22 September, told me by text. Her claims could not be verified, though she provided several photos of her in detention.
The planned annexations of several occupied regions of Ukraine following sham referendums, due to be held between 23 and 27 September, could also allow authorities to increase the number of Ukrainians that have already reportedly been forcibly recruited to serve in the Russian military.
Russians seeking to flee the draft are likely to number in at least the hundreds of thousands. The West should do whatever it can to help them. The European countries that have ordered severe restrictions on entry by Russian citizens should reverse those decisions. With the conscription order, every man of fighting age is potentially liable for forced recruitment. European governments should realise that every man who is in the EU is not in Ukraine and act accordingly. Welcoming opponents of the war for its duration – eminently manageable for a bloc of 450 million people – will help the Ukrainian war effort by depriving Moscow’s army of cannon fodder, while signalling to the Russian people that the West opposes their criminal regime, not ordinary citizens.
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