On the 22nd of May Russian journalist and blogger Ekaterina Gordeeva published a documentary film ”It’s a special military operation! Why did you let children participate?” on her YouTube channel Tell Gordeeva. The journalist conducted an interview with three Russian women whose young sons found themselves “behind the tape” – Russian: “za lentoy”; in modern Russian military jargon “za lentoy” “behind the tape” means “in Ukraine”. The film starts with the confession of one of the mothers, who is citing her son’s words “We didn’t even know we had crossed the border with Ukraine. We only found out when we got a notification on our phones, saying ‘Welcome to Ukraine’”, followed by the words of the second woman interviewed, who says “I buried him five times. Whenever I find any confirmation that he is still alive, I feel a surge of happiness. But then there is a call or a new witness that shatters my hopes”. One of the mothers asks a rhetorical question: “Is the president even aware of what’s going on in our army?…”
Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine started on the 24th of February. However, a few days before the beginning of the operation, information from mothers whose sons are doing the compulsory military service – in Russia the mandatory conscription lasts for 12 months – started popping up. According to this information, some conscripts were sent to Russian regions bordering Ukraine. After that, many of them never contacted their families again.
There are various human rights organisations that are working with the conscripts’ relatives. The committee of Soldiers’ mothers was founded in 1989 by the relatives of soldiers of compulsory military service; back in the past, the organisation aimed to get the young recruiters back from the Soviet army because of the humiliating conditions they were in. Nowadays, the organisation protecting conscripts’ rights in the Russian army is reporting that since mid-February they have received many preoccupied letters from soldiers’ relatives. Based on these letters, many recruits were forced to sign the regular contract with the Ministry of Defence; later they were sent to Russian military bases close to Ukraine. According to the committee’s lawyer, Alexander Latynin, the recruits can be sent to different military bases on Russian territory to participate in various military exercises organised by the Ministry of Defence. Even the conscripts who are doing military service for less than 4 months can be sent to the other states’ territories and it’s not against law. However, the presidential decree № 1237 ‘Regulations on passing of military service, states that their participation in any military action is strictly forbidden.
The Kremlin was trying to hide numerous cases of participation of the recruits in special military operations. At the beginning of the special military operation in Ukraine, president Putin declared the impossibility of conscripts’ participation in the special military operation in Ukraine. However, on the 9th of March, the Russian Ministry of Defence officially acknowledged that there were cases of conscripts’ participation in the operation. After that, according to Chief spokesman of the Russian Ministry of Defence Igor Konashenkov, all the conscripts turned back to Russian territory. Putin ordered the punishment of the officers responsible for sending the conscripts to Ukraine.
Conscripts’ participation in the special military operation in Ukraine is an extremely sensitive topic in Russia. The law recently approved by the Russian Duma against people who “knowingly” spread false information about the Russian military operating abroad – often referred to as “fake law” – presupposes fines and a prison sentence of up to 15 years. Therefore, touching upon the issue of participation of the conscripts in military action in Ukraine is extremely risky.
On the 11th of March Meduza published the material about Marina Ivanova, whose son started the mandatory military service in June 2021. In February 2022 he was serving near Moscow, when suddenly he and his fellow soldiers were sent to the regions on the borders with Ukraine. Since then, Marina has received only short text messages from her son. Ivanova asked for help from the president’s administration, highlighting that young conscripts are terrorized and often forced to sign the contract against their will. Meanwhile, the Russian Ministry of Defence doesn’t give any explicit comments.
Russian special military operation in Ukraine has been going on for four months; however, the Russian Ministry of Defence doesn’t give any comments on the number of victims among the Russian military, including the conscripts. The families of the military are remaining in uncertainty for weeks and months until they have found any information on their loved ones.
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