Pro-Russia separatist forces have stepped up the forced conscription of men – including Ukrainian passport holders – in occupied areas of the Donbas region, amid mounting evidence of the scale of losses on the Russian side.
According to credible evidence from the region, forced conscription – already a feature of the Russian-backed separatists’ rule before the Kremlin’s invasion on 24 February – appeared to have picked up again in June, with checkpoints and patrols, some reportedly involving Chechen fighters allied to the Kremlin, on the lookout for men to recruit.
In one video filmed in late June, a woman in Makeevka, in the Donbas region, documented her efforts to prevent officials from the war commissariat from dragging her husband into a car to take him to the conscription office.
In a heated exchange, in which the woman cannot be seen, she at first confronts two officials – one a heavy-set man with a gun and a black T-shirt with a “new Russia” flag, and the second man holding documents including her husband’s passport.
“Return the passport, please,” the woman says. “There’s no martial law, you’re taking away [my husband].”
“It’s a general mobilisation,” the first man says, as the woman demands: “Why are you here?”
“I’m with the conscription office,” he replies.
“Why aren’t you at the front?” the woman asks scathingly, commenting on the gold bracelet he is wearing. “You go fight where ever you want. You’re not taking [my husband] away.”
A third man, standing by the door of a shop, interjects, saying: “I know where my neighbors were taken.”
“It’s voluntary. Voluntary!” the woman shouts. “He doesn’t want to go and fight!”
“He is liable to fight,” the man responds.
“But it is a Ukrainian passport. He’s not compelled to fight for you.”
At one point a man’s voice, apparently the husband’s, can be heard asking: “Why are you trying to drag me into the car”. One of the men explains: “Because I need to bring you to the conscription office to check your documents.”
As the argument continues, the woman describes how other relatives have gone to fight and die. “Nobody wants to fight! We are so sick of you and your war. You took away all the men!
“All of the young men. We’ve already buried half of them. Brother in law. Bro. Everybody, for fuck’s sake. We only have one left. We have a disabled child.”
Oleksandra Matviichuk, a human rights campaigner from the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine, who was sent the video by a colleague after it was posted briefly on the woman’s Telegram channel before it was blocked – apparently by local authorities – said the altercation ended with the officials leaving and ordering the man to present himself at the conscription office within two hours, and it was unclear what happened to the couple.
“The forceable conscription to army of so called DPR and LNR [the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics] – although I prefer to say by Russia – started before the full-scale war,” she said. “But since 24 February we’ve seen men stopped in the street, having passports taken and a forcibly sent to the army. After February we started receiving messages asking for help.”
Matviichuk read out one letter she received from a man in the Luhansk region who had been hiding in his flat to avoid forced conscription. “He says: ‘How can I make Russia accountable in court? This is a violation of my rights. Since February I haven’t been able to go out in the street because there are patrol cars in my town searching for men without exception. They are hunting us like stray cats. Chechen [fighers] are helping them search for men on the list.”
Describing the circumstances of the video, Matviichuk said it appeared to have been shot after a period in June when the conscription squads had been relatively inactive, and at the beginning of a new wave of forced conscriptions.
“It appears that they started looking for men again around 23 June, putting up checkpoints on exits to towns on highways, with the war commissariat issuing notices to people in reserved occupations like factories,” she said.
“It is so unbelievably cruel. What we are seeing is a woman insisting that he is a Ukrainian citizen and how they are demanding they should be going to kill other Ukrainian citizens.
“We did some work on this before the war started and we assessed there might be as many as 500,000 men who were vulnerable to being conscripted to fight on the Russian side.”
The renewed evidence of forced conscription comes amid well-documented issues of Russian losses in the war, and as the Kremlin has begun raising new volunteer battalions across Russia offering sign-up bonuses and recruiting in prisons.
While Ukrainian estimates put the number of Russians killed since the war began at 38,000, western analysts suggest a figure roughly a third lower, with the UK defense officials recently suggesting a figure of about 50,000 killed and injured since February.