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Putin digs in for a forever war

New conscription rules signal that the Kremlin has no intention to give up on its war effort.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – Russia is on “forever war” footing. New conscription laws, rushed through the Russian parliament on 11 April, will make it quicker and easier for authorities to compel eligible men to join the army. The changes have fuelled speculation that the Kremlin is preparing a second wave of mobilisation, after the first in September 2022.

The new rules include measures that will make dodging any new draft far more difficult. Draft papers will now be considered “received” a week after they appear on an online government portal, even if their recipients are unaware that they have been conscripted. (Conscription notices previously had to be delivered to draftees in person.)

Conscripts who fail to report to draft offices will also face consequences. They will be banned from driving, for instance, and buying or selling real estate. They will also be banned from travelling abroad from the moment a draft notice is received. During the first wave of mobilisation last autumn, there were widespread reports of pensioners, ineligible citizens and people with disabilities being handed draft notices. Yet the new laws also mean that citizens who want to appeal against their draft order will have fewer legal options available to them to do so.

[See also: “Russia cannot afford to lose, so we need a kind of a victory”: Sergey Karaganov on what Putin wants]

The reforms come ahead of an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive, which Kyiv and its allies have said could begin within weeks. The counterattack is expected to attempt to break Russia’s “land corridor” to Crimea in the south of Ukraine. Last autumn, Ukrainian forces broke through Russian lines in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions, which liberated large parts of the country; the Kremlin is keen to avoid similar defeats.

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The new conscription laws will also affect Russians outside the country. They are likely to dissuade Russians who left the country after the war broke out from returning – whether to sort out financial affairs, take care of family or because they find it difficult to adapt to life abroad – because they could be prevented from leaving once again. The new measures could also be used to harass those who have left Russia, who the regime sees as traitors, by effectively freezing some of their assets.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, told journalists on 12 April that the changes “have nothing to do with mobilisation”. He insisted that the reforms were instead intended to avoid draft notices being sent to ineligible citizens and make the system “modern, effective and convenient”.

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His comments have done little to assuage fears in Russia that a further wave of conscription may be imminent. Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, recently called for the size of the army to be increased from 1.15 million to 1.5 million. Officially, 300,000 men were conscripted during the first wave of mobilisation last year, although the actual figure is classified and could well be higher.

[See also: No, Russia isn’t about to break apart]

A new wave of mobilisation may or may not come. But the conscription changes are an attempt by the Kremlin to prepare Russia for a new “forever war”, Mark Galeotti, an expert on the country, said. At the same time, it is also an attempt to placate the majority of Russians. The ban on leaving the country, for example, “is a specific restriction upon the right to travel that will only apply to those people who have been singled out”, Galeotti said. “The overwhelming majority of Russians will as a result be kept free of that. The regime is trying to ensure that it has the legal means to fight, without needlessly impinging on ordinary Russians’ lifestyles.”

Other recent developments, such as the arrest of the American journalist Evan Gershkovich by Russian security services on 29 March, are further indications that the Kremlin has decided it is in an existential struggle with the West, which it must be prepared to endure for the foreseeable future. Yet the Kremlin’s new rules will inevitably bring the war a little closer to Russian citizens, with every male of draft age potentially a target for conscription. After assassinations, such as that of the pro-war military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky in St Petersburg in early April, drone strikes inside Russia, and now these streamlined conscription measures, the war in Ukraine is increasingly impossible to forget for Russians who long to do so. 

[See also: Putin under pressure]

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