oDR: Interview

Is Russia forcing people to fight in Ukraine?

We asked a specialist whether Russia is secretly mobilising citizens to send them to war in Ukraine and whether soldiers can refuse to fight

Editors of oDR
25 May 2022, 12.01am
(c) Alexey Sukhorukov /ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved

Ahead of 9 May, when people across Russia mark the Soviet Union’s victory in the Second World War, several media outlets suggested that Vladimir Putin could announce a general mobilisation.

The expectation was that the move would come during Putin’s Victory Day speech on Red Square. Citing their own sources, the publications said Russian security services would close the borders for men aged 18 to 60 within 10 days. Job sites saw a marked rise in vacancies for “mobilisation specialists”. In response, a change.org petition against mobilisation collected several thousand signatures in a few hours. Mass mobilisation was not announced on 9 May, though Russian society was frozen in a state of suspense.

But covert mobilisation is underway, says Sergey Krivenko, head of the ‘Citizen.Army.Law’ human rights association.

This former member of Russia’s Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, a consultative body, told openDemocracy that people were increasingly being called to military registration and enlistment offices and asked to sign contracts.

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To what extent is mobilisation realistic, in your opinion?

It’s a difficult question. On the one hand, after 24 February, anything can happen in Russia. But on the other hand, the Russian authorities still present the war in Ukraine as a “special operation” rather than a “war”. As if it was a military operation that takes place outside of Russia, similar to Syria, and therefore Russian society should not be particularly affected.

That is, the army will deal with the situation on its own – it has certain tasks and that’s it. This is not a war against Ukraine, in which the whole of Russian society needs to be involved, but a special operation of the Russian military.


Sergei Krivenko

In my opinion, this is how the Russian authorities are presenting the operation. And this is why Russian society finds a possible mobilisation hard to understand.

Why introduce mobilisation when the authorities have been presenting this war for the past three months as if it was “not a war”?

From this point of view, mobilisation is very unpopular in Russian society, as became clear when rumours about it spread.

Many people are afraid of it, hotlines of human rights organisations receive a large number of questions: “How will the mobilisation take place?”, “Will I be called up?” and so on. It’s clear that mobilisation is unpopular. And so I think that the authorities will delay it “until the end”, until it becomes necessary.

How does covert mobilisation work from a legal perspective? Is it possible to refuse without repercussions?

Mobilisation involves calling up people who are in the reserves of Russia’s armed forces. This includes almost all young people who have served in the army – about 300,000 men a year are called up for conscription, as well as about 400,000 contract soldiers [professional soldiers] who generally serve for several years, although sometimes they only serve for a few months. When they leave the army, these soldiers are transferred to the reserves. This means there is a huge number of people in the military reserves: several million people. The exact figure is unknown. It’s a state secret.

And mobilisation is a call to military service – a forced draft, that is, in principle, impossible to refuse if you are in the reserves. Not only those who have served are in the reserves, but also those who have not served by the time they are 27, when they are no longer obliged to serve. Let me remind you that young men between 18 and 27 are called up for conscription [editor’s note: university students are free from conscription, although they can be drafted after they graduate, one can also avoid the draft by showing a medical certificate showing one is unfit for service].

These people, if they have not served, receive a military registration card and are transferred to the reserve. If mobilisation is announced, they will also be called up for military service.


The letter "Z" has come to stand for Russia's invasion of Ukraine


(c) Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

This means there is a huge contingent [of potential soldiers], including a number of women who did not serve, but have specialisms useful to the military: doctors, translators, signals officers and others. The several million Russians who are in the reserve would be obliged to join the army if there's a general mobilisation.

Russia has a law on mobilisation [the federal law on preparation for mobilisation and mobilisation from February 1997], which makes it clear that the president is responsible for declaring mobilisation by decree. Only after a presidential decree on mobilisation do Russian citizens who are in the military reserves face being drafted. Until that decree, there is no obligation.

"Any citizen can safely refuse [to] sign a contract when they are called into an enlistment office, without any consequences"

There is currently no decree on mobilisation, and the following is happening: in peacetime, military registration and enlistment offices or companies management teams have the right to call in soldiers in the reserve and check their personal information. The military enlistment offices in Russia and the companies’ management teams have these powers under the law: they can check whether someone’s education status has changed, the state of their health, and marital status. It is important to note that they cannot check all of your information, only the points that are recorded in your mobilisation documents.

We are currently seeing that there is no formal mobilisation and that no one is obliged to join the army if they are called into an enlistment office. But people are being called into military registration and enlistment offices, where they are then invited to sign a service contract. Many people are invited to sign up, to go to war in Ukraine, but not under mobilisation – rather, as a contract soldier. The Russian army has a mixed recruitment structure, by conscription and by contract, but the key rule is that the contract is voluntary.

Any citizen can safely refuse [to] sign a contract when they are called into an enlistment office, without any consequences.

Cases of covert mobilisation

BBC Russia reported earlier this month that military registration and enlistment offices have been summoning men for ‘military registration’. Not all men knew they could ignore these summons.

Four Russian men appearing in videos published by the Security Service of Ukraine introduced themselves as reservists and said they were invited to the military registration office at the start of April. There, they were promised work in the rear, before being sent to the frontline, in the Luhansk region, and captured.

Russian news website Verstka spoke to the wife of an employee of the Moscow Metro who said her husband and all his male colleagues had been ordered to undergo a medical examination and could be sent to fight in Ukraine in the future. Employees were told that those who refused could be fired or face prosecution.


Have enlistment offices ever invited people who never wanted to join the Russian army to sign up – perhaps during the 2008 war with Georgia or in 2014 during the war with Ukraine?

Unfortunately, there are no statistics. We only have the information that comes to the hotlines of human rights organisations, such as the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers, and what is openly available on the internet.

Sometimes the enlistment offices can’t recruit enough people for contract service or some kind of specialists are needed – they call people up [outside of the process above] and offer them a contract, but these are isolated cases.

At the moment, of course, we can say that this is a mass phenomenon. I don’t have numbers, but compared to peacetime, there are quite a lot of people contacting rights organisations about this.


9 May in St Petersburg


(c) SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Recruitment for a contract goes in two ways: any citizen can simply come to an enlistment office and sign a contract and become a soldier, provided that he is fit and healthy, or if you’re a conscript, after you serve a few months, you can be offered to switch to contract service. The minister of defence and the president have now pledged they would not send conscripts to war, and so calling people into the enlistment office [to sign contracts] is becoming the only way to replenish the numbers of contract soldiers.

There are a lot of reports that people were called up like this and then, practically without training, were immediately sent to fight, but this is via contract.

There are also reports about volunteers who do not join the Russian army, but go to the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic”, where “volunteer detachments” are created. This is actually illegal from the point of view of Russian legislation, but these people nonetheless [are issued with weapons, uniforms and a salary] through the “republics” [which are under Russian control].

Tell us about alternative service in the event of mobilisation. Can someone demand they not be sent to fight?

Here we rely on the Russian Constitution. Under Article 59, paragraph 3, every citizen of the Russian Federation, in the event they are personally against war, is guaranteed the replacement of military service with civilian service.

The procedure is as follows: a young man called up for military service has the right to substitute it with the performance of civil duties. There is a corresponding law [from 2002] and it more or less works. [According to Russia’s defence ministry, about 2,000 people apply for alternative civilian service each year and about half of them are approved.]

This law is not ideal, all sorts of obstacles can arise, but it’s still possible to use it. There is no such law for contract soldiers and soldiers in the reserve, but our constitution is directly applicable, and the Russian Constitutional Court has repeatedly pointed out that it does not matter whether there is a law or not for the exercise of constitutional rights.

"There are several hundred servicemen who have terminated their contract on the basis of their anti-war beliefs"

A Russian contract soldier, even if he has been sent to a combat zone, has the right to declare his convictions and, on this basis, demand the termination of his contract. Since the law doesn’t apply to military personnel, they cannot offer the person alternative civilian service, but they are obliged to terminate the person’s contract, since they have become unsuitable for professional duties. This practice already exists: I would say there are several hundred servicemen who have terminated their contract on the basis of their anti-war beliefs.

We are sure that in the event of mobilisation, any citizen can demand their military duties be replaced by civilian service. There can be no total refusal here, because this is mobilisation, but it is highly likely that one will be able to demand a replacement option – serving in the rear or serving in hospitals. Any citizen who is in the reserve has this right, but how this will happen is unclear – mobilisation has never been announced in Russia. Even in the 1990s [during the First Chechen War] when there was no law on alternative civilian service, soldiers refused to serve and this only led to a few criminal cases.

So saying no to military duties is possible, even if we don’t have much clarity as to how this would work. At least, it should be possible to refuse military duties which involve direct fighting.

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