Russia struggles to replenish its troops in Ukraine

LONDON: Prisoners at the penal colony of St Petersburg were expecting a visit by officials, thinking it would be some sort of check. Instead, men in uniform came and offered to pardon them – if they agreed to fight alongside Russian troops in Ukraine.
In the days that followed, about a dozen people left the prison, according to a woman whose boyfriend was serving a sentence there. Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, she said her boyfriend was not among the volunteers, although given his years in prison, he “can’t help but think about it.”
As Russia continues to suffer losses in its invasion of Ukraine, now nearing its sixth month, the Kremlin has refused to announce a full-scale mobilization – a move likely to be highly unpopular with the President. Vladimir Putin. Instead, that led to a covert recruitment effort that included the use of prisoners to fill a shortage of manpower.
This is also happening as hundreds of Russian soldiers refuse to fight and try to leave the army.
“We are seeing a large influx of people who want to leave the war zone – those who have served for a long time and who have recently signed on,” said Alexei Tabalov, an executive attorney. Legal of the Conscript School said. aid group.
The group has noticed a flurry of requests from men who want to terminate their contracts, “and I personally have the impression that all of them might be willing to run away,” Tabalov said in an interview. with the Associated Press. “And the Department of Defense is digging deep to find people they can persuade to serve.”
Although the Department of Defense denies that any “mobilization activities” are taking place, authorities appear to be pulling all the stops to promote enlistment. Authorities have set up mobile recruitment centers in several cities, including one at the site of the Siberian marathon in May.
Regional governments are forming “volunteer battalions” that are broadcast on state television. The Kommersant business daily counted at least 40 such entities in 20 regions, with officials promising monthly salaries for volunteers ranging from the equivalent of $2,150 to nearly $5,500, plus money reward.
AP has seen thousands of openings on job search sites for various military professionals.
The British Army this week said Russia had formed a new large ground force known as the 3rd Army Corps from “volunteer battalions”, which are looking for men aged 50 and under and require only qualifications. junior high schools, while also providing “profitable bonuses” when they are deployed to Ukraine.
But complaints also surfaced in the media that some people were not receiving the promised payments, although those reports could not be independently verified.
In early August, Tabalov said he began receiving requests for legal aid from reservists who had been ordered to attend a two-month training course in areas near the border with Ukraine.
Vladimir Osechkin, founder of the prison rights advocacy group, said the recruitment of prisoners has taken place in recent weeks in seven regions, said.
This is not the first time the authorities have used such a tactic, as the Soviet Union used “prisoner battalions” during World War II.
Russia is not alone. Early in the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy promised an amnesty to former soldiers behind bars if they volunteered to fight, although it remains unclear if anything has happened since.
In the current circumstances, Osechkin said, it’s not the Defense Department that’s recruiting prisoners — rather, it’s Russia’s shady private military force, the Wagner Group.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman known as “Putin’s chef” because of his catering contracts with the Kremlin and believed to be Wagner’s manager and financier, has dismissed reports that he personally visit prisons to recruit inmates, in a written statement released by his representative this month. In fact, he denies any relationship with Wagner, which is said to have sent military contractors to places like Syria and sub-Saharan Africa.
According to Osechkin, prisoners with military or law enforcement experience were initially recommended to come to Ukraine, but were later extended to prisoners of different backgrounds. He estimates that by the end of July, about 1,500 people may have applied, lured by promises of large salaries and eventual amnesty.
Now, he adds, many volunteers – or their families – are contacting him and trying to break free of their commitment, telling him, “I really don’t want to go.”
According to the woman whose boyfriend is serving a sentence at a criminal camp in St Petersburg, the offer to leave the prison is “a glimmer of hope” for freedom. She added that one of the volunteers expressed regret over his decision and did not believe he would return alive.
Her account cannot be independently verified, but is consistent with numerous reports by independent Russian media and human rights groups.
According to those groups and military lawyers, some soldiers and law enforcement personnel have refused to deploy to Ukraine or are trying to return home after weeks or months of fighting.
Newspaper reports of some military refusals to fight in Ukraine began to surface in the spring, but rights groups and lawyers only started talking about the number of refusals running into the hundreds last month. .
In mid-July, the Free Buryatia Foundation reported that about 150 men were able to terminate their contracts with the Ministry of Defense and return from Ukraine to Buryatia, an area in eastern Siberia bordering Mongolia.
Some soldiers are facing consequences. Tabalov, a legal aid lawyer, said about 80 other soldiers seeking to void their contracts were detained in the Russian-controlled town of Bryanka in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine, according to their relatives. . Last week, he said that the Bryanka detention center was closed because of media attention.
But the parents of an officer who was detained after trying to get out of his contract told the AP this week that some are still being held elsewhere in the area. The parent requested not to be identified because of safety concerns.
Tabalov said a soldier can terminate his contract for a compelling reason – usually not difficult – although the decision often rests with his commander. But he added: “In war conditions, no commander would admit to anything like that, because where would they find people to fight?”
Alexandra Garmazhapova, head of the Free Buryatia Foundation, told the AP that soldiers and their relatives complained about commanders tearing up termination notices and threatening the “denial” with prosecution. As of the end of July, the foundation said it had received hundreds of requests from soldiers seeking to end their contracts.
“I get texts every day,” says Garmazhapova.
Tabalov said some soldiers complained they were misled about where they were going and did not expect to end up in a war zone, while others were exhausted from fighting and unable to continue.
There was rarely a motive for them to be convicted of anti-war convictions, the lawyers said.
Military analyst Michael Kofman said Russia will continue to face problems with soldiers refusing to fight, but Russia’s ability to “overtake … by means of measures should not be underestimated.” half-hearted”.
“They’re going to have a lot of people who quit or have people who basically don’t want to deploy,” said Kofman, director of the Russian Studies Program at the Virginia-based Center for Naval Analysis. . “And they used a lot of measures to try to keep people in line. But in the end, there wasn’t much that they could do.”

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