Ukrainian war: Russia struggles to replenish its troops

The prisoners of the St. Petersburg penal colony expected a visit from officials, thinking that it would be some kind of inspection. Instead, men in uniform arrived and offered them amnesty – if they agreed to fight alongside the Russian army in Ukraine.

Over the next few days, around 10 left the prison, according to a woman whose boyfriend is serving a sentence there. Speaking on condition of anonymity because she feared reprisals, she said her boyfriend was not one of the volunteers, although with years to serve he ‘couldn’t not think about it “.

As Russia continues to suffer casualties in its invasion of Ukraine, which is now approaching its sixth month, the Kremlin has refused to announce a full-scale mobilization – a move that could be highly unpopular for President Vladimir Putin. . It has instead led to a covert recruitment effort that includes the use of prisoners to fill the labor shortage.

It also comes amid reports of hundreds of Russian soldiers refusing to fight and trying to quit the military.

“We are seeing a huge exodus of people who want to leave the war zone – those who have served for a long time and those who signed a contract just recently,” said Alexei Tabalov, a lawyer who heads the legal school for conscripts. support group.

The group has seen an influx of requests from men who want to terminate their contracts, “and I personally feel like anyone who can is ready to run away,” Tabalov said in an interview with The Associated. Press. “And the Department of Defense digs deep to find those it can persuade to serve.”

Although the Ministry of Defense denies that “mobilization activities” are taking place, the authorities seem to be doing everything to strengthen enlistment. Billboards and advertisements on public transport in various regions proclaim: “It’s work”, urging men to join the movement. Authorities have set up mobile recruitment centers in some towns, including one at the site of a half-marathon in Siberia in May.

The regional administrations form “volunteer battalions” which are promoted on state television. Business daily Kommersant counted at least 40 such entities in 20 regions, with officials promising volunteers monthly salaries ranging from the equivalent of $2,150 to nearly $5,500, plus bonuses.

The PA has seen thousands of openings on job search websites for various military specialists.

The British Army said this week that Russia had formed a major new ground force called the 3rd Army Corps from ‘volunteer battalions’, seeking men up to 50 and requiring only a secondary education , while offering “lucrative cash bonuses” once they are deployed to Ukraine.

But complaints are also surfacing in the media that some are not receiving promised payments, although this information cannot be independently verified.

In early August, Tabalov said he began receiving multiple requests for legal aid from reservists who had been ordered to participate in a two-month training in areas near the border with Ukraine. .

Recruitment of prisoners has continued in recent weeks in as many as seven regions, said Vladimir Osechkin, founder of prisoners’ rights group, citing detainees and their relatives his group had contacted.

This is not the first time authorities have used such a tactic, with the Soviet Union employing “prisoner battalions” during World War II.

Russia is not alone either. At the start of the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy promised amnesty to military veterans behind bars if they volunteered to fight, although it’s unclear if anything came of this.

Under the current circumstances, Osechkin said, it is not the Defense Ministry that is recruiting prisoners, but rather Russia’s shadow private military force, the Wagner Group.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, an entrepreneur known as “Putin’s boss” because of his catering contracts with the Kremlin and who was allegedly Wagner’s manager and financier, dismissed reports that he personally visited the prisons to recruit convicts, in a written statement released by its representatives this month. , in fact, denies having ties to Wagner, who allegedly 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 detainees from a variety of backgrounds. He estimated that by the end of July around 1,500 people could have applied, lured by promises of big salaries and possible pardons.

Now, he added, many of these volunteers – or their families – are contacting him and seeking to evade their commitments, 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 beacon of hope” for freedom. But she says he told her that out of 11 volunteers, eight died in Ukraine. She added that one of the volunteers expressed regret for his decision and does not believe he will come back alive.

His 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 lawyers, some soldiers and law enforcement officers have refused to deploy to Ukraine or are trying to return home after a few weeks or months of fighting.

Media reports of some troops refusing to fight in Ukraine began to surface in the spring, but rights groups and lawyers only began to report the number of refusals reaching the hundreds last month.

In mid-July, the Free Buryatia Foundation reported that about 150 men were able to terminate their contracts with the Ministry of Defense and returned from Ukraine to Buryatia, a region in eastern Siberia that borders Mongolia. .

Some of the military are facing repercussions. Tabalov, the legal aid lawyer, said about 80 other soldiers who were seeking to cancel their contracts were being held in the Russian-held town of Bryanka in the eastern Lugansk region. Ukraine, according to their relatives. Last week, he said Bryanka’s detention center was closed due to media attention.

But the relative of an officer who was detained after trying to terminate his contract told the AP this week that some are still being held elsewhere in the area. The parent asked not to be identified for security reasons.

Tabalov said a serviceman can terminate their contract for a compelling reason — normally not difficult — although the decision is usually up to their commanding officer. But he added: “Under the conditions of hostilities, not a single commander would recognize such a thing, because where would they find people to fight?

Alexandra Garmazhapova, head of the Free Buryatia Foundation, told the AP that soldiers and their relatives complained that commanders tore up dismissal notices and threatened “refuseniks” with legal action. In late July, the foundation said it had received hundreds of requests from soldiers seeking to terminate their contracts.

“I get messages every day,” Garmazhapova said.

Tabalov said some soldiers complain that they were deceived about their destination and did not expect to end up in a war zone, while others are exhausted from the fighting and unable to continue.

Rarely, if at all, did they seem motivated by anti-war beliefs, the lawyer said.

Russia will continue to face problems with soldiers refusing to fight, military analyst Michael Kofman said, but Russia’s ability to “get by…with half measures” should not be underestimated. .

“There’s going to be a lot of people quitting or not wanting to deploy,” Kofman, Virginia-based Russian Studies program director at the Center for Naval Analyses, said in a recent podcast. . “And they used a lot of measures to try to keep people in line. But in the end, there’s not much they can do.


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