Russia steps up efforts to boost army size

The spring draft for military service in Russia is underway. Will the young men be sent to fight in Ukraine?

Russia steps up efforts to boost army size
Russia steps up efforts to boost army size
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DW

Russia's annual spring draft got underway on April 1 when President Vladimir Putin signed a decree ordering that 147,000 men be enrolled for the obligatory year of military service. That's about 8% more on average than in previous years. In spring 2022, for example, the number was 134,500.

This year's spring draft is accompanied by a marketing campaign in the hopes of winning over more young men and convincing them to serve in the military on a contract basis. According to news agency Bloomberg, the Russian army aims to recruit some 400,000 new contract soldiers in order to send them to fight in the war against Ukraine.

The Russian Defense Ministry has, however, rejected rumors and reports that the country is planning another mobilization. "Our general staff are not planning a second mobilization wave. The number of people who were already drafted and those who volunteered for the special operation is sufficient," insisted Vladimir Tsimlyansky, the head of the Main Organizational and Mobilization Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. Within Russia, the country's invasion of Ukraine can be referred to only as a "special military operation."

Marketing for the military

Sergey Chernyshov, the director of an institute of higher education in Novosibirsk, spoke of how the school has been asked to advertise for a military career among its students with promotional material sent by local officials. Chernyshov then posted on social media about a flyer praising the advantages young people will supposedly have if they pledge to serve in the Russian military.

Chernyshov didn't mince words about the recruitment drive. "Government officials picked the wrong target audience for this marketing campaign in my opinion, because students have to do military service only later. It's crazy to ask them to drop [their studies] and switch to the army. Are they searching for complete idiots? Beyond that, it's in complete contradiction to our values, which maintain that politics and education should be separated."

The portal Taiga.info reported that the city of Novosibirsk has sent similar flyers to property managers in the city, who were asked to put them "on bulletin boards, house doors and in stairwells."

Kremlin intends to strengthen army

In January, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced a reform of the nation's army. The goal is to increase the army forces by 350,000 soldiers, from 1.15 million to 1.5 million, though experts consider it unrealistic to recruit that many soldiers in such a short time.

The Kremlin has also proposed that the draft age — currently between 18 and 27 — be raised to between 21 and 30. The members of Russia's State Duma, the country's lower parliamentary house, want to raise only the upper age limit for now. This would increase the pool of people who can be drafted in the short term, with the lower limit then set to gradually rise as well.

But this reform has nothing to do with the current spring draft, said Alexei Tabalov, a human rights activist and the director of an organization that helps Russian conscripts. He believes the draft to Russian military service is being "carried out according to old rules."

Sergei Krivenko, director of the human rights group Citizen Army Law, agrees with Tabalov's assessment. "This is [probably] the last or the next to last draft in which only those under 27 years of age will be conscripted."

Shortly before the spring draft, the Defense Ministry started a campaign urging men to join the military forces as contract soldiers. According to human rights advocates, material promoting such a step is being sent along with draft notices. In addition to government officials advertising on Telegram, marketing materials are also being placed on various local websites, as well as in libraries, government offices and athletics colleges.

Will drafted soldiers be sent to Ukraine?

Despite the repeated statements made by Russian officials claiming that those doing the obligatory temporary military service will not be sent to fight in Ukraine, civilian reports to the contrary have repeatedly appeared in the media. They state that family members were in fact deployed to the fighting zone, or very near to it.

A woman named Galina complained that her son had been threatened with deployment from Novosibirsk, where he was doing his military service, to the Belgorod region. "Why should he be sent there after just three months of military service? The president ordered that no conscripts be sent to the combat zone," she said.

That conscripts are being sent to the conflict area despite Putin's declarations to the contrary is something that Alexei Tabalov can confirm: "We regularly get reports about conscripts being sent to areas bordering Ukraine for military service."

At the beginning of March 2022, Putin claimed that no conscripts would be taking part in the conflict in Ukraine. However, the Defense Ministry quickly acknowledged having made mistakes and admitted that conscripts were indeed being sent to the combat zone. That's also been verified by family members of dead Russian soldiers who were on board the Moskva, the warship sunk by Ukrainian rocket fire in the Black Sea in April 2022.

In recent months, it's been revealed that conscripts are being ordered to dig foxholes and trenches on the border to Ukraine. Many pictures posted online by members of the military forces have confirmed this.

"That Russia's Ministry of Defense wants to replace mobilization by getting more people to sign contracts as soldiers indicates that draftees are likely the most important target group of this advertising campaign," said Tabalov. He fears that in the future, there will be even more examples of conscripts being compelled to join Russian military forces.

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