Russia is trying to increase its troops in Ukraine
This also comes amid reports that hundreds of Russian soldiers are refusing to fight and are trying to withdraw from the military.
“We’re seeing a huge influx of people wanting to leave the war zone — those who have been serving for a long time and those who just recently signed a contract,” said Alexei Tabalov, a lawyer who heads the conscript school’s legal department.
The group has seen an influx of requests from men who want to terminate their contracts, “and personally I get the impression that anyone who can is ready to run,” Tabalov said in an interview with The Associated Press. “And the Department of Defense is digging deep to find those it can persuade to serve.”
Although the Department of Defense denies that any “mobilization activities” are taking place, authorities appear to be pulling out all the stops to encourage recruitment. Billboards and public transport advertisements in various regions proclaim, “This is the job,” urging men to join Authorities have set up mobile recruitment centers in some cities, including one at the site of a half-marathon in Siberia in May.
The regional administrations form “volunteer battalions”, which are advertised on state television. The business daily Kommersant counted at least 40 such facilities in 20 regions, with officials promising the volunteers monthly salaries ranging from the equivalent of $2,150 to nearly $5,500 plus bonuses.
The AP saw thousands of job listings on job hunting websites for various military specialists.
The British military said this week that Russia is deploying a large new ground force called 3 from “volunteer battalions” to Ukraine.
However, complaints are also emerging in the media that some are not receiving their promised payments, although these reports cannot be independently verified.
In early August, Tabalov said he had received several letters rogatory from reservists who were ordered to attend a two-month training course in areas near the border with Ukraine.
Prisoner recruitment has taken place in seven regions over the past few weeks, Vladimir Osechkin, founder of prisoner rights group Gulagu.net, said, citing inmates and their families with whom his group had been in contact.
It’s not the first time the authorities have used such a tactic, as the Soviet Union used “prisoner battalions” during World War II.
Russia is not alone either. At the start of the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi promised amnesty to military veterans behind bars if they volunteered to fight, although it remains unclear if anything came of it.
Under the current circumstances, Osechkin said, it is not the Defense Ministry that is recruiting prisoners, but Russia’s shadowy private military power, the Wagner Group.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, an entrepreneur known as “Putin’s chef” because of his catering deals with the Kremlin and rumored to be Wagner’s manager and financier, brushed aside reports that he personally visited prisons to recruit convicts in a written statement, released this month by its representatives. Prigozhin, in fact, denies he has any ties to Wagner, who has reportedly sent military contractors to places like Syria and sub-Saharan Africa.
According to Osechkin, prisoners with military or law enforcement experience were initially offered to go to Ukraine, but this was later extended to inmates from a variety of backgrounds. He estimated that by the end of July about 1,500 might have applied, lured by promises of high salaries and eventual pardons.
Now, he added, many of those volunteers — or their families — are contacting him and trying to get out of their commitments by telling him, “I really don’t want to go.”
According to the woman whose boyfriend is serving his sentence in the St. Petersburg penal colony, the offers to leave prison are “a glimmer of hope” for freedom. But she said he told her that out of 11 volunteers, eight had died in Ukraine. She added that one of the volunteers had expressed regret over his decision and didn’t think he would return alive.
Her account could not be independently verified, but was consistent with several reports by independent Russian media and human rights groups.
According to these groups and military advocates, some soldiers and law enforcement officials have declined to deploy to Ukraine or are attempting to return home after a few weeks or months of fighting.
Media reports of some troops refusing to fight in Ukraine surfaced in the spring, but human rights groups and lawyers only began speaking out about the number of refusals, which have reached the hundreds, last month.
In mid-July, the Free Buryatia Foundation reported that about 150 men were able to quit their Defense Ministry contracts and returned from Ukraine to Buryatia, a region in eastern Siberia that borders Mongolia.
Some of the soldiers face consequences. Tabalov, the legal aid lawyer, said about 80 other soldiers who wanted to have their contracts annulled were arrested in the Russian-controlled city of Bryanka in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk region, according to their relatives. Last week he said the Bryanka detention center was closed due to media attention.
But the parent of an officer who was jailed after trying to get out of his contract told the AP this week some were still being jailed elsewhere in the region. For security reasons, the parent asked not to be named.
Tabalov said a soldier can terminate his contract for a compelling reason – usually not difficult – although the decision usually rests with his commander. But he added: “In the conditions of hostilities, not a single commander would recognize such a thing, because where would they find people to fight?”
Alexandra Garmazhapova, director of the Free Buryatia Foundation, told the AP that soldiers and their families complain that commanders are tearing up resignation letters and threatening “resisters” with prosecution. By the end of July, the foundation said it had received hundreds of applications from soldiers wanting to end their contracts.
“I get messages every day,” Garmazhapova said.
Tabalov said some soldiers complained that they had been misled about where they were going and didn’t expect to end up in a war zone, while others were exhausted from combat and unable to continue.
Rarely, if ever, were they motivated by anti-war condemnations, the attorney said.
Russia will continue to have problems with soldiers who refuse to fight, said military analyst Michael Kofman, but one should not underestimate Russia’s ability to “muddle by halves.”
“You’re going to have a lot of people who are quitting or have people who basically don’t want to send out,” Kofman, director of the Virginia-based Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyzes, said in a recent podcast. “And they’ve taken a lot of measures to try and keep people on track. But ultimately they can’t do that much.”