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Putin calls Russia to arms

The first mobilisation since 1941 was announced in Russia, but no one understands how it will work. We explain its main aspects

Новая газета Европа

Photo: Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Early morning on 21 September, Vladimir Putin announced the start of “partial mobilisation” in Russia — the first mass recruitment of reservists since 1941. According to official statements, there are plans for 300,000 people to be delivered to the army against their will. Novaya Gazeta. Europe explains how the mobilisation process will look like, whether the government’s actions follow the written law, and how Russian citizens are trying to express their disagreement with forced recruitment. 

Changes to the Criminal Code

The day before Putin’s announcement, the State Duma quickly approved (the second and third readings of) the bill on making amendments to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. The new reiteration included such terms as “mobilisation”, “martial law”, and “wartime”. Two new articles were added: “On voluntary surrender into captivity” (Art. 352.1, from three to ten years of imprisonment) and “On looting” (Art. 356.1, up to 15 years of imprisonment). Furthermore, the line “during armed conflicts or military action” was changed to “during the period of mobilisation or martial law, during wartime” in the list of extenuating circumstances while committing a crime (Art. 63). Harsher punishments were introduced under the Article “On unwarranted leaving of unit or place of service” (Art. 337), while punishments were added for failure to appear in service for reservists present at military drills. The Article 332 “On failure to comply with orders” was changed — now, refusal to participate in hostilities will be punished with imprisonment from two to three years.

Who will be recruited?

In his national address, Putin promised that the only citizens to receive a military service summons would be “those that are currently in the reserve, and first of all, those that served in the Armed Forces, have specific military specialisations and relevant experience. Before being sent to military units, the recruits will mandatorily undergo additional military training that will be based on the experience received during the special military operation.” He also assured Russians that the mobilised soldiers would receive the same payments as contract servicemen.

The mobilisation decree was published immediately after the end of Putin’s address. Currently, regional governors are tasked with organising recruitment within the framework determined by Russia’s Defence Ministry separately for each region — the ministry determines the number of recruits needed and the deadlines. Political scientist Ekaterina Shulman noted that, despite Putin calling the mobilisation “partial”, the decree provides no criteria of the mobilisation. Furthermore, none of Putin’s statements were reflected in the text of the decree.

“According to this text, anyone could be drafted, except for employees of defence enterprises that get an exemption for the period of their work,” Shulman emphasised.

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One can gather that the president’s announcement was of no surprise to military enlistment offices, and they already had a strategy established for the next several days of work. Calls with suggestions of coming to the office started going off at once. For example, a reader of Novaya Gazeta. Europe informed us that he had received a call from a military enlistment office immediately after Putin’s address, on the morning of 21 September. The man is 34 years old, he served in the signal corps. On the phone, he was told to come in for a commission. Then, he would be sent for three months of military training. In response to his question — “what if I don’t come?”, the man was told that he would be held criminally liable. According to Article 328 of the Criminal Code, evaders could face up to two years of imprisonment.

A lawyer from the Russian Coalition of Human Rights Defenders for Deliberate Refusal from Military Service (he asked to remain anonymous) told us that over 2,000 requests had been received by the coalition on 21 September. Around 300 more were received on 20 September, after the news about the amendments to the Criminal Code.

The fighting capacity of these summoned troops is questionable. Reserve soldiers are reservists only on paper. This is exactly why the Ministry of Defence chose a contract army rather than a conscript army. “After five-seven years, a person that previously served in the army is no longer a soldier of any use,” military expert Pavel Luzin says.

“And if they served in the 2000s, how many of them even remember their military specialities?”

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A 27-years-old reservist, who was discharged in 2016, told Novaya Gazeta. Europe that he had received a summons immediately after Putin’s address. He has not received neither mobilisation orders nor military placement documents beforehand. The man served in the elite 51st Guards Airborne Regiment and was a shooter-assistant to grenade launcher at the time of his discharge. He says that the prospect of ending up in combat does not scare him, but he will not be going to the military enlistment office voluntarily — “having been on the inside [of the army], I really didn’t appreciate the way they treat people.”

Despite having served in an elite unit, the potential fighter is doubtful of his skills after five years in civilian life. “I would rate my level of combat training as a six out of ten,” he shares. “But objectively, one year [of the compulsory military service] wasn’t enough — just as you’ve learned the basics, you’re on your way back home.

I think that I would probably be lost [in a fight] now. Several months of active drills are necessary.”

In the end, the interlocutor of Novaya Gazeta. Europe decided to start planning a departure from Russia.

How many people can be called upon?

300,000 reservists that the Ministry of Defence mentions is, in fact, a lot of soldiers. Last year, the actual numbers of the Russian army amounted to 740,000 people; before the start of the invasion, around 150,000 Russian soldiers were gathered near the Ukrainian border.

We tried to estimate how many Russians are at risk of getting a summons and what chances of ending up in the Armed Forces you or your relative have, if you or they recently served in the army.

In total, Russia has 31.5 million men aged from 18 to 50. About 25 million people are listed as members of reserve troops (this number also includes women with medical or military education and officers of age up to 60-65).

However, the first people to be summoned will be reserve soldiers of the first category. These are soldiers below the age of 35, junior officers below the age of 55, and senior and top officers of age up to 60-65.

In the last 16 years, around 5.5 million people were summoned to undergo compulsory military service in Russia. The majority of these people are currently younger than 35, i.e. they fall under the requirements for the partial mobilisation. Furthermore, around 10-11 thousand officers graduate from military institutions every year, estimates military expert Pavel Luzin. Thus, around 300,000 officers were trained in the last 30 years, the period of modern Russia. This means that, all in all, around 6 million people could be at risk of being sent to the frontlines against their will.

This is a rough estimate, the number is, probably, way too high. It does not account for the fact that there were a lot of soldiers older than 18 doing compulsory military service in the 2000s and these people would not be considered reserve soldiers of the first category.

They will come for every seventh reservist

The six millions number does not account for the fact that not everyone has a currently in demand military speciality: member of tank crew, machine gunner, shooter, etc. According to Pavel Luzin, only a bit more than a third of conscripts and military institutions’ graduates end up in ground forces. This means that the number of potential mobilised soldiers decreases to 2 million people.

It is important to understand that the 300,000 people recruitment limit was only pronounced by officials, it was not reflected in any documents. The seventh paragraph of the mobilisation decree is hidden from the public, it is “for internal use only”. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov claims that the fact that 300,000 people are needed for mobilisation is indicated in this paragraph.

However, Novaya Gazeta. Europe’s sources close to the Presidential Administration and the command of several Russian [military] units say that the hidden paragraph establishes the limit of 1,000,000 reservists [that could be summoned for mobilisation].

We have not been able to acquire documented confirmations of this information.

A big number of reservists can ask for a postponement: employees of defence enterprises, people with health issues, fathers of multiple children, people taking care of elder relatives, and certain government officials. The whole list can be found here.

There are around 2 million or fewer Russians that are primarily at risk of ending up on the frontlines. If 300,000 of them get recruited, then it means they are coming for every seventh of them.

To summarise: if you / your relative / your friend are younger than 35, if your / their military ticket states belonging to the first category of reserve troops, and you / they served in ground troops, your / their risks of getting a summons are higher than average.

Will military enlistment offices be able to handle mobilisation?

Representatives of the Russian Coalition of Human Rights Defenders for Deliberate Refusal from Military Service say that they noticed a big spike in the number of requests related to military summons in 2022, even before the mobilisation announcement.

“I’ve heard that, even in the big cities, it was hard to recruit conscripts in 2021, they ended up with a lesser number of conscripts than planned. And now, they have to recruit 300,000 people in a short time — with the resources I’m seeing in military commissariats, that is unachievable,” a coalition lawyer speculates. New employees, police agents, and employers could be used to conduct the mobilisation process; the databases of conscripts, created during the war, could also be of help. “But they won’t be able to reach everyone,” the lawyer concludes.

A resident of Moscow that recently underwent compulsory military service told Novaya Gazeta. Europe that he had received a summons from a janitor on the morning of 21 September.

“I opened the door, I didn’t take the summons. An hour later, I checked my mailbox, the summons was in there. I took it, ripped it, and threw it away,” 

he said.

Military expert Pavel Luzin is certain that mobilisation will fail — the government will not be able to recruit 300,000 soldiers, which means that they will soon start recruiting anyone they can find.

“They will recruit anyone they will be able to find. They won’t use ranks, just give [recruitment] plans to regions. A soldier of any military specialty could become a member of motorised rifle troops,” the expert says.

On 18 September, three days before Putin’s address, a Telegram channel titled Where is summons given out was created. By the end of 21 September, it had around 18,000 followers, and citizens started to send in photos and videos of men of recruitment age being ambushed on public transport or crowded places in Moscow. Some videos show the summons being filled out and given to people on the spot.

What happens if you try to evade mobilisation?

If it is stated in the document that the reason for the summons is clarification of the military registration documents or there is no reason stated at all, and if the summons was given to the recipient — failure to show up [to a military enlistment office] can lead to a fine from 500 (€8.5) to 3,000 rubles (€51), according to Article 21.5 of the Administrative Code.

There is some ambiguity as to what happens if the summons states its reason is “for military recruitment in accordance with mobilisation”, according to what human rights defenders told Novaya Gazeta. Europe: starting from 20 September, mobilisation period is considered an extenuating circumstance, there is a risk of receiving a sentence under Article 328 of the Criminal Code (“On evading military service”).

However, not everyone gets jail time even under extenuating circumstances in Russia. “Until today, failure to show up after receiving a summons was an administrative offence. If a person disappears after having visited a military enlistment office, then that’s an evasion that could lead to criminal liability,” a lawyer explains.

According to the law “On mobilisation organisation and mobilisation in the Russian Federation”, people with a military registration (anyone from reserve soldiers and conscripts to students with military postponements) are not allowed to leave their place of residence without a permission from a military commissariat. However, this ban does not presuppose restrictions on going abroad.

“The law establishes a list of grounds for when leaving is prohibited — there is no ban on leaving the place of residence on the list. In theory, a ban on leave can be applied only to people that have already been sent to the troops,”

a lawyer who asked to remain anonymous says.

By the evening of 21 September, it was reported that military commissars of Tatarstan, Dagestan, and the Samara region signed orders “On announcing mobilisation”, according to which the reservists that have not yet received a summons are not allowed to leave their place of residence.

How to protect yourself from mobilisation?

In Russia, conscripts can apply for alternative civilian service. Such conscripts spend two years working civilian jobs in the public sector instead of doing compulsory military service — for example, as an orderly or a janitor. The lawyer says that the alternative service can help evade mobilisation, for ex-conscripts and contract servicemen alike. Here is his advice:

“You need to be ready to defend your right not to fight, which everyone has according to Article 59 of the Constitution. If the summons was given out properly, then you need to apply for alternative civilian service. It’s better to wait for the answer in a secure place, if your rights are being ignored, then it’s time to go to court and ask for suspension of mobilisation and recognition that the refusal to change military service to alternative service is illegal.

“Even during the last conscription period, conscripts used this method, and it worked, but it’s possible that the mobilisation process will make defending one’s rights more difficult. Which means you can defend your rights with your direct actions. By this I mean refusing to comply with the commissariat’s demands: refuse to sign for the military ticket, put on the uniform, take a weapon into your hands, and obey orders, seeing as they contradict your views,” the anonymous human rights defender explains.

The lawyer adds that one has to have their medical records on hand, they could be a reason to be deemed unfit or partially fit [for service]. And you should never believe the words of military enlistment office representatives when they offer to come in so you can receive a summons or an exemption from mobilisation.

Mobilisation with a carrot

The government decided to make mobilisation a success not only through threats of criminal persecution but also through several “benefits”. The Central Bank of Russia was quick to announce that mobilised civilians would be able to get delays on their loans. The bank regulator recommended that banks stop charging fines and interests, cease the demands for early fulfilment of obligations, delay collection of overdue debts and mortgage payments, and not to evict [mobilised soldiers] from mortgage housing. The same rights are reserved for close relatives of such loaners, if they are considered their dependants.

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However, the Central Bank’s current strategy does not correspond with the views of the Defence Ministry. Chief of the State Duma Defence Committee colonel general Andrey Kartapolov warned that new recruits would have to continue to pay for their mortgage with “their new salary that will be very high”.

Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin promised that mobilised Moscow residents and volunteer fighters participating in the war in Ukraine would get additional payments.

Protests

Immediately after Putin’s address, anti-war activists launched a petition against mobilisation. By the end of September 21, more than 300,000 people had signed it.

On the evening of September 21, first protests since the start of the war began in 38 Russian cities. According to the data provided by Russian human rights project OVD-Info, at least 1,352 people were detained all over Russia. Over 500 people were detained in Moscow, 556 — in Saint Petersburg. The Federal Security Service Tyumen City Department announced that the first people to receive summons would be people participating in protests, reported lawyer Ilya Remeslo, the information was later confirmed by a source of media outlet URA.RU.

“Everyone that will show up to the No to Mobilisation protest will be sent to military service before everyone else,”

the agency’s source said. Press secretary of OVD-Info Maria Kuznetsova also said that people detained in Moscow had been given out summons or threatened with it.

Nowhere to run

During the afternoon of 21 September, Russians were buying up all available plane tickets to the countries that have a visa-free regime with Russia. By early evening, there were no tickets left from Moscow to Istanbul, Yerevan, and Baku.

However, according to the law, during mobilisation period, anyone with a military registration is not allowed to leave the country, notes Pavel Chikov, head of the human rights defenders group Agora:

“[The law] dictates that, from the moment of mobilisation being announced, citizens with a military registration are prohibited from leaving their place of residence without a permission of a military commissariat.”

This restriction applies to everyone with a military registration, whether they are subject to mobilisation or not.

As of publication of this text, Russian borders remain open. Without a passport, Russians can leave for Armenia and stay there for 180 days, Kazakhstan (a 30-day stay is allowed without registration, another 60 days — with residence registration), Kirghizstan (a 30-day stay is allowed without registration, another 180 days — with registration). There is also an option of going to Belarus.

There are several countries that Russians can travel to with a valid passport and without a visa. In particular, Russian citizens can stay in Georgia for a year, in Mexico — for half a year (only an electronic visa is required). Some countries, Indonesia among them, issue a visa upon arrival at the airport.

According to the data of Telegram channel Border Control, where Russians have been sharing stories of their experiences when leaving Russia since the start of the war, on the first day of mobilisation, men from reserved troops faced no problems while crossing the Russian border.

Who can you ask for legal assistance?

Some social movements and human rights organisations help to apply for alternative service and provide legal aid. These are some organisations:

Movement of Deliberate Refuseniks from Military Service;

Conscript’s School;

Call to Conscience.

There are also several organisations doing consultations on questions related to mobilisation. For example:

Human rights defenders group Agora;

Media Support Service;

Soldiers’ Mothers Committee;

Soldiers’ Mothers of Saint Petersburg.

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