Covert mobilization and Ukrainian conscripts from occupied Crimea sent to die in Russia’s war against Ukraine
Russia is clearly not finding enough Russian citizens willing to fight and quite possibly be killed fighting its war against Ukraine. It has used the armed formations it calls ‘republics’ in occupied Donbas to seize Ukrainian men and forcibly send them to the frontline where very many have been killed, and it now appears to be planning a form of mobilization in occupied Crimea. Russia has been illegally imposing conscription in the peninsula since 2015, and Ukrainian human rights NGOs warn that, despite Russian denials, some Crimean convicts have been sent to fight – and to die – in the fighting in mainland Ukraine.
On 30 June, Sergei Aksyonov, Russian-installed ‘leader’ of occupied Crimea, issued ‘a decree’ on creating ‘conscription commissions on mobilization’, with this widely feared to be preparation for mass mobilization. That was denied on 5 July by the so-called Crimean military commissar Yuri Lymar, who claimed that the ‘degree’ was needed merely to make ordinary changes to the makeup of such commissions given numerous changes in municipal regions. He added that it had nothing to do what he called, in accordance with the official Russian line, ‘the special operation’. Whether it is normal to have a mobilization commission headed by Aksyonov, with Lymar as his deputy, may already seem in doubt, but this is unquestionably not an ordinary time, with Russia waging a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and almost certainly trying to annex whole areas of the country.
During a press briefing on 6 July, Tamila Tasheva, the Ukrainian President’s Representative on Crimea, reported that Russia is already carrying out covert mobilization. Over the four months since Russia began its full-scale invasion, she said, the occupation administration has been covertly carrying out mobilization and sending Ukrainian citizens to a war against their own country. She added that they are concealing the real number of deaths, and holding secret burials, with the families of the men killed prohibited from revealing any details about how (and where!) the men died. Her office has information about over 100 deaths of Crimean soldiers, with around half of these believed to have been Ukrainian citizens. The Crimean Human Rights Group is also gathering data, and has recorded many of the killed Ukrainians, including conscripts.
Both in Russia and in occupied Crimea, officials have denied that conscripts are being sent to Ukraine. There was evidence back in 2014 that such assurances were lies, and the same is true now. There has also been enormous secrecy about the downing of the Moskva battleship on 13 April, and the number of men, many of them conscripts, who died. Dmitry Shkrebets, whose conscript son Yegor was on Moskva, insisted on speaking out and has since reported facing FSB interrogation, supposedly on suspicion of sending a bomb threat.
According to Iryna Sedova from the Crimean Human Rights Group, they have confirmed information about young Crimean conscripts being sent to fight and of some having been killed. Russia is committing a war crime, Sedova adds, by imposing forced conscription during a time of war.
In fact, Russia has been doing precisely this since 2015, with 34 thousand Crimeans having already been forced to serve in the Russian army. Even without the risk of real engagement in a military conflict, this is in flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention which, in Article 51, states unambiguously that “the Occupying Power may not compel protected persons to serve in its armed or auxiliary forces. No pressure or propaganda which aims at securing voluntary enlistment is permitted”.
The situation is now especially critical as there are immediate grounds for fearing that young Ukrainians from occupied Crimea will be sent to fight against other Ukrainians. Conscripts have no experience nor training, and will very likely be killed. On 6 July, Russia’s Duma also finally passed a bill which will enable Russia and the occupation authorities to send young lads straight out of school to fight in Ukraine. They will officially be contract soldiers, meaning that the lie can be maintained that conscripts are not being used, though there is plenty of evidence that young lads are placed under enormous pressure to sign such contracts.
If, in occupied Crimea, Russia simply tries to conceal the number of military deaths, and has, in any case, made such information a ‘state secret’, it has total freedom in occupied Donbas to send Ukrainians to their deaths without any record being kept. It is galling that many western commentators still continue to use misleading terms like ‘pro-Russian rebels’ or ‘separatists’ when referring to the Russian proxy ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics’ given that Russian leader Vladimir Putin effectively abandoned any pretence in the days prior to the full-scale invasion. It is Russia that is using these illegal armed formations to round up all men, even those with serious medical issues, and forcibly send them ‘to fight’ on the frontline. There have also been reports of men taken prisoner by the Russian invaders who have also been ‘mobilized’ in this manner. The wives of men taken from their place of work or seized on the street have, in many cases, not heard anything about their husbands for months. These Ukrainians are, essentially, being used by the enemy as cannon fodder for a ‘war’ in which Russia claims to be ‘liberating’ Ukrainian territory.