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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Russia steps up conscription in occupied areas, Ukrainians say

Russian recruits take a bus near a military recruitment center in Krasnodar, Russia, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered a partial mobilization of reservists to beef up his forces in Ukraine.

By Marc Santora and Anna Lukinova

As military officers across Russia race to enlist hundreds of thousands of men to fight in Ukraine, the Kremlin is also looking to bolster its flagging recruitment efforts by dragooning Ukrainians in occupied territories to fight against their own nation.

In two regions, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, the Russian occupiers are beginning to round up men to fight even as they are also forcing residents to vote in a sham referendum on joining Russia. All men ages 18 to 35 have been forbidden to leave and ordered to report for military duty, according to witnesses and Ukrainian officials, who say that many men are now in hiding or looking to escape.

Since President Vladimir Putin declared a “partial mobilization” last week that is sweeping up hundreds of thousands of Russians, Moscow’s forces in Ukraine “don’t let men out,” said Halyna Odnorih, a coordinator in the city of Zaporizhzhia for people who have escaped occupied regions. “Many people are calling us and asking whether we could help them to evacuate. But unfortunately we can’t.”

The drive to compel Ukrainians to fight against other Ukrainians is part of a broader effort by Moscow to mobilize hundreds of thousands of new fighters as its forces suffer huge casualties and struggle to hold off Ukrainian advances in the east and south.

It also shows how the Kremlin is defying international condemnation and pushing forward with efforts to cleave Ukraine. Voting in staged referendums continued Sunday in four occupied regions amid a backdrop of violence and repression, a likely prelude to an announcement of annexation by Moscow that Ukrainian officials warned could come as soon as next week. After that, analysts warn, the Kremlin could declare the areas Russian territory and protected by the might of its full arsenal, including the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons.

Putin had resisted ordering a mobilization for months, but his decision underscored the Kremlin’s concerns over high casualties — U.S. officials estimate that over 80,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or injured in the war — as well as its commitment to a prolonged struggle to bend Ukraine to its will. Thousands have been arrested for protesting the call-ups in Russia in the face of harsh laws against dissent.

Forced conscription also continues in the two other occupied regions where Russian officials are staging referendums, Luhansk and Donetsk, eastern areas that have been partially controlled by Moscow since 2014. In both, many men volunteered to fight for Russia before its full-scale invasion began in February. But as casualties rose — and many fighters were dispatched to the front with little training or support — a large-scale conscription effort has been instituted to replenish the ranks.

Currently, Russia controls nearly all of Luhansk, a large portion of Kherson and less than half of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia. It is also stepping up conscription in Crimea, the southern peninsula that it illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014, according to human rights groups and witnesses.

Those groups say the Russian military has been disproportionately conscripting Crimean Tatars, an ethnic minority group that has faced persecution by Russian officials “with the apparent goal of completely silencing dissent on the peninsula,” according to a 2017 Human Rights Watch report.

Alim Aliev, a co-founder of rights organization Crimea SOS, said that 80% of summons to the Russian army in Crimea were issued to Crimean Tatars.

“It’s a new type of repression,” he said. “We advise people not to come to the public gatherings, not to take the notifications and not to come to the military committees.”

Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, called the conscription campaign in Crimea “a real ethnic genocide and an enormous tragedy for the entire nation.”

“Forcing citizens to a war in the occupied regions is nothing more than Moscow’s attempt to cleanse the territory of a disloyal population,” he said Sunday.

The recruitment of unwilling soldiers carries obvious risks for Russia. Military analysts have said that conscripts from Luhansk and Donetsk were part of the forces whose stunning collapse in the northeastern Kharkiv region this month allowed for Ukraine’s most successful offensive operation of the war.

The Ukrainian intelligence service said last week that Ukrainian recruits sent by Russia to fight in Kherson have “refused to take part in combat missions.” Citing intercepted communications and interviews with relatives, the agency said that Russian commanders had threatened to send conscripts “to the front line without weapons if they refuse to follow orders.”

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