“Volunteer” battalions and “people’s militias,” even waiving the need for Russian passports, are all strategies employed by the occupiers to replace their dead and wounded. But in Crimea and the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics of Eastern Ukraine, the supply is starting to dry up despite conscription and mobilization.
The pattern for local recruitment was established before the February 2022 all-out invasion. Russian forces began issuing call-up papers in Luhansk, Donetsk, and Crimea after the 2014 occupations and, according to the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office for Crimea and the City of Sevastopol, 2021 marked the 14th illegal round of conscription on the peninsula. Since 2015, the occupiers have called up 34,000 Crimeans into Russia’s armed forces. Countless others have refused to serve.
Tamila Tasheva, the Ukrainian president’s representative to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, said many fled after Russia’s full-scale invasion to avoid being forced into the army. There were several waves of departures, particularly during the conscription and mobilization campaigns of April and September 2022, she said.
“The only way to avoid mobilization was to leave Crimea. A lot of people left, including whole families, especially Crimean Tatars,” Tasheva said in an interview. The mobilization targeted the Tatars because they were seen as the least likely to be loyal to Moscow.
As well as the regular army, the occupying forces have been recruiting people from the peninsula into the private military groups deployed to some of the fiercest parts of the frontline. Ex-servicemen and other employees of the security forces are enticed into the Wagner Group and the newly created Shchit (Shield) and Rusich private armies with the promise of higher salaries and other benefits.
In the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, mobilization started just a couple of days before February 2022, on the pretext that Ukraine was about to launch an offensive. Street patrols and searches were used to hunt those evading the draft.
Ihor, a student from Donetsk, said he hid in his apartment and then moved to another to avoid being mobilized. “We stopped going out because they started to walk the streets and pick people up,” he said in an interview with Radio Svoboda. “Rumors started that they would be going around the apartments. We began to hide more carefully. Life was getting worse and worse. First of all, the feeling of security disappeared. Then the feeling of freedom disappeared.” Ihor, who canceled his mobile phone and cut down on online activity to make it harder for security forces to track him, was eventually smuggled out in the back of a car.
Russian forces established enlistment offices across many of the territories they occupied after the full-scale invasion. Denis Pushylin, head of the self-proclaimed DPR, issued a “decree” ordering the establishment of such offices in Mariupol and its surrounding district to keep track of “all citizens born in 2006, as well as older citizens who are not registered, but are required to be registered with the military office.” A similar order was issued in Luhansk Oblast.
In Melitopol, which was occupied in February 2022, the military enlistment office appeared eight months later, according to Ivan Fedorov, exiled mayor of the occupied city. The first task was the organization of a draft for the Sudoplatov “volunteer” battalion, he said. Named after the Soviet intelligence officer Pavel Sudoplatov who organized Leon Trotsky’s murder, it was led by Yevgeny Balitsky, acting head of occupied Zaporizhzhia Oblast.
“The occupying forces have different ‘volunteer’ battalions, which are all about the same thing, getting people to fight,” Fedorov said in an interview. “They are creating different formats, like ‘people’s militias,’ to involve as many people as possible who can then be used as cannon fodder at the front.”
In some areas, people were stopped at checkpoints and those with Russian passports were immediately handed summonses. “Then it all stopped. Until the next round, which started in the middle of March with an attempt to update the records of all people of draft age,” Fedorov said. The requirement for the correct paperwork has now been abandoned, he added. “It doesn’t matter if they have a Russian passport or not.”
The change followed a March 27 decree, signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the mobilization of Ukrainians in the occupied territories. According to the order, Ukrainians no longer need to have a Russian passport or reach a certain age to join the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.
“These are deliberately written conditions for the temporarily occupied territories to replenish the reserves of Russia’s National Guard,” Fedorov said. “Can they announce fully-fledged conscription? They definitely can, when they have a shortage on the front, but it will be extremely difficult because the residents of the temporarily occupied territory will definitely not fight against Ukraine.”
The problem of finding recruits willing to fight against their countrymen has been repeated across the occupied territories. Yurii Sobolevskyi, first deputy head of Kherson Oblast Council, told this author the Russians are afraid to mobilize there because it is so hard to find people loyal to Moscow. “They created a volunteer battalion named after Margelov on paper, but they couldn’t form it” because there weren’t enough volunteers, he said. “In the Kherson region, forced passportization is taking place, hidden deportation is carried out, but there is no information that they opened military enlistment offices there.”
The mobilization of residents from the occupied territories is a war crime. According to Article 51 of the Geneva Convention, the occupying power is prohibited from forcing civilian populations of occupied territories to serve in its armed forces or using propaganda to persuade them to do so.
While the Russians flout international law, residents in the occupied territories have several options to survive: leave the territory, avoid mobilization and refuse Russian documents, or, if mobilized, surrender to the Armed Forces of Ukraine at the first opportunity. If they can survive that long.
Elina Beketova is a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), focusing on the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. She worked as a journalist, editor, and TV anchor for various news stations in Kharkiv and Kyiv, and currently contributes to the translator’s team of Ukrainska Pravda, the biggest Ukrainian online newspaper.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.