By Ivan Nechepurenko, Neil MacFarquhar and Vjosa Isai
With many Russians worried that their government may once again resort to a far-reaching military conscription to shore up its faltering invasion of Ukraine, lawmakers in Moscow on Tuesday moved to make it much harder for people to dodge the draft.
The measures passed by the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, would bar anyone called up to fight in Ukraine from leaving the country, among other restrictions. The upper house of parliament must also approve the measures.
While the Kremlin insists that it does not plan a new draft, the government appears intent on making sure that if there is one, it is not as chaotic as the mass conscription ordered last fall.
When President Vladimir Putin of Russia announced that one in September, saying the goal was to bring about 300,000 more troops into the military, tens of thousands of men headed for the borders, finding havens in other countries.
That may prove to be more difficult should there be a new conscription.
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesperson, said Tuesday that there were no plans to mobilize more men to fight in Ukraine and that the measures were needed to modernize the conscription system.
But the question of a new draft has taken on added urgency in Russia as its forces prepare for an anticipated spring counteroffensive from Ukrainians. The Kremlin has had to walk a fine line between keeping the peace at home and meeting its military needs in Ukraine.
Analysts say the prospect of another call-up depends on the situation on the ground.
“Risks of another mobilization wave will directly depend on the threat of whether Ukraine can break through the defense lines,” Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of R. Politik, a political analysis firm focused on Russia, wrote on the Telegram social messaging app.
“If that happens, no political arguments, such as approval ratings, growing anxiety or other issues would prevent it.”
But Ukraine, too, faces steep challenges, especially when it comes to desperately needed artillery shells and air-defense ammunition. It has pressed its allies for more weaponry, and Tuesday, on a visit to Toronto, Ukraine Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal secured a promise for new military aid. Canada said it would supply Ukraine with 21,000 assault rifles, 38 machine guns and 2.8 million rounds of ammunition, worth 59 million Canadian dollars (about $44 million).
The measures adopted by the Duma on Tuesday also included a provision to introduce electronic draft summonses and steps to close loopholes in the system to make it more difficult for draftees to avoid notifications.
Under the new law, a summons would be marked as formally received as soon as it landed in a recipient’s inbox on a widely used government services website. Even if the draftee did not have an account, a call-up notice would be marked as officially received seven days after being added to the registry.
Russians called up would immediately be forbidden to leave the country. And failure to turn up at a local conscription office within 20 days of receiving a draft notice could result in a variety of penalties, including a driver’s license suspension, along with a block on registering real estate and other property and on receiving a bank loan.
The tightening of the conscription rules comes against the backdrop of a much broader crackdown on civil liberties in Russia that began after Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
This week, a Kremlin critic facing 25 years in prison for criticizing the war likened the current climate in his country to the terror of the Stalin era.
“The day will come when the darkness over our country will dissipate,” the dissident, Vladimir Kara-Murza, 41, declared in a courtroom in Moscow. “When black will be called black and white will be called white; when at the official level it will be recognized that two times two is still four; when a war will be called a war, and a usurper a usurper.”
The Kremlin has insisted on describing the invasion as a “special military operation,” but it soon learned that whatever it wants to call it, it has plunged Russia into a bloody and protracted conflict that has, by Western estimates, killed or wounded as many as 200,000 Russian soldiers.
In the fall, facing setbacks on the battlefield, Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops, prompting protests nationwide and an exodus of draft-age men.
Back then, Russians could dodge conscription by avoiding receipt of the call-up notice, a formal document that had to be signed. And the conscription system was outdated. Many people were not registered or had old addresses on file — making it hard for military officials to locate potential draftees.
The passage of the new draft law was rushed. Details of the new measures were announced only the day before, and some deputies complained on Tuesday that they could not read the draft law before voting.
The final measure will have to be signed by Putin before it becomes law.