ukraine volunteer fighter
A Ukrainian soldier flashes the victory sign at a front line northeast of Kyiv on March 3. Photo: Aris Messinis / AFP

Russia Is Forcing Conscripts To Fight, While Ukrainians Are Desperate To Enlist

As Ukrainians fight to join the resistance, on the Russian side, reports depict a demoralised army using illegal conscripts pushed to the front line.
Gavin Butler
Melbourne, AU

Shortly after midnight on Feb. 25, less than 24 hours after Russia launched a full-scale invasion and sent missiles raining down over Ukraine, Mark Savchuk was already bound for the capital.

“On my way to Kyiv… Can’t wait to join the local armed group,” he told VICE World News, messaging as he travelled from Lviv in western Ukraine. “Miss my city so much.”

Before the war, 32-year-old Savchuk was a professional PR consultant. He enjoyed playing sports, travelling, and the occasional bit of live action role playing, or LARPing. On his Facebook page there are photos of him dressed in Ukrainian army fatigues, strutting around a makeshift military encampment and brandishing a revolver. 

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But this is just cosplay. In truth, like thousands of other young Ukrainians wanting to become involved in their country’s resistance struggle, he has never experienced real combat.

“Which is why they [the Ukrainian army and territorial defence] will probably tell me to fuck off,” he reasoned. “They don’t accept people with no military experience to local armed groups. They are ‘full’ already.”

Less than two weeks since the Russian assault, tens of thousands of Ukrainians have flocked to defence centres around the nation to join the armed resistance, outstripping munitions to the point where many are now being turned away. 

Some people are even trying to bribe military officials in a desperate bid to be considered for duty, according to several would-be volunteers who spoke to VICE World News. It’s a stark contrast to the Russian side, where the country’s Ministry of Defence admitted Wednesday that conscripts had been illegally deployed to Ukraine, and reports are emerging of soldiers being extorted and coerced into waging a war many don’t believe in.

“Basically,” Savchuk said in a message, “you need to give bribes IN ORDER to join the army [in Ukraine].”

VICE World News could not confirm whether any would-be soldiers successfully bought their way into the territorial defence. Yevhen Berdnikov, a 32-year-old freelance designer who’s become an informal coordinator at a defence centre in Kyiv, said he personally heard of two people’s attempted bribes getting declined. But that doesn’t deter people from doing their part in resisting Russian aggression.

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“Those who can’t join the [territorial resistance] make masking nets at home or molotovs,” Berdnikov told VICE World News. “Homeless people started collecting bottles and bringing them for molotovs. Basically everyone is either in the shelter or is preparing to fight.”

Within the first 48 hours of the war, 18,000 assault rifles were handed out to reservists in Kyiv, as a grassroots militia patrolled the streets, setting up makeshift military checkpoints and monitoring for Russian spies and saboteurs. Shortly thereafter, according to Berdnikov, stores around the city started selling out of hunting rifles. 

While in the immediate aftermath of the invasion Ukraine banned men aged 18-60 from leaving the country, Berdnikov asserts that the majority of those who have remained in Kyiv have done so because of a desire to support the resistance. 

“This is not some bravada,” he said. “The city is open to leave by car or train, and whoever wanted to [has] left already. So we are fighting till the end and we’re going to win this. Volunteers without guns will have pitchforks, kitchen knives and molotovs.”

On the other side of the conflict, a very different picture is emerging showing a disjointed Russian invasion force featuring reluctant, and illegally deployed, young conscripts.

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According to a Russian presidential decree, only professional soldiers, as opposed to conscripts completing their mandatory military service, can legally be dispatched abroad. President Vladimir Putin insisted last week that “conscript soldiers are not participating in hostilities and will not participate in them.” 

On March 9, however, the Ministry of Defence conceded that young men completing their military service had been pushed to the front line. 

“Unfortunately, we have discovered several facts of the presence of conscripts in units taking part in the special military operation in Ukraine. Practically all such soldiers have been pulled out to Russia,” the ministry said in a statement.

This admission merely confirmed what rights groups already knew. The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia (CSMR), an influential non-governmental organisation that aims to expose human rights violations within the Russian military, has been publicising reports of foul play from conscripts’ family members since the invasion began. Families allege abuse by authorities, claiming their relatives have been deployed to border territories where Putin is mounting his onslaught or forced to sign professional contracts. 

“Putin ruled out the participation of conscripts in a special operation in Ukraine. However, there are also commanders who fraudulently try to send conscripts to the place of conducting a special military operation,” CSMR states on its website. “Every day, relatives of such servicemen turn to us.”

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In the past two weeks, Russian independent outlet Meduza has also published reports of young Russian army conscripts being forcibly transferred to contract service and sent to the front lines of the conflict in Ukraine. 

Andrey Kurochkin, deputy chairman of the CSMR, similarly told Russian news outlet Takie Dela: “There are facts of the use of physical violence, [and] beatings of those who refuse to become contract soldiers. Further, complete uncertainty, as their phones are taken away. 

“We’ve had a flurry of calls from scared mothers all over Russia. They cry, they don’t know if their children are alive or healthy.”

A man finishes glueing a huge placard depicting a Russian serviceman in the city center of Simferopol, Crimea, on March 4, 2022. The sign reads: “A Russian soldier is a liberator!” Photo: AFP/Stringer

A man finishes glueing a huge placard depicting a Russian serviceman in the city center of Simferopol, Crimea, on March 4, 2022. The sign reads: "A Russian soldier is a liberator!" Photo: AFP/Stringer

As the conflict drags on and Ukraine mounts a stiffer-than-expected resistance, local authorities, news outlets and social media users have given other insights into the state of morale among Russian fighters. This has taken the form of a crowdsourced mosaic of images and soundbites that, while best consumed with a grain of salt in the context of an ongoing information war between the opposing sides, tells a plausible story about the realities on the ground. 

Surfacing in recent weeks have been recordings of Russian troops crying on the front lines and heartbroken text messages to mothers back home, as well as videos of visibly dejected captured soldiers claiming they were lied to by their superiors.

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“A lot of soldiers surrender. Most of them are fucking kids; 20 to 22 year olds,” Berdnikov writes in a virtual diary that he posted to Reddit. “Every one of them says the same thing—we didn’t know we’re going to war, they said it was military exercise, just go and you’ll get more orders in three days.”

Military service is mandatory in Russia for all men aged 18 to 27: 12 months of duty after just four months of basic training. Yet while avoiding the draft is a felony that carries a prison sentence of up to two years, many Russians opt out of the obligation through medical or educational exemptions. Some, in contrast to the recent actions of Ukrainian volunteers, pay bribes to members of draft boards, doctors, or other officials to avoid enlistment. 

VICE World News spoke to one former conscript who served between 2019 and 2020.  Sasha, who VICE World News is not naming due to a crackdown on critics in Russia, claimed that not knowing where one is going or what one is doing was a core part of the conscript experience. And he did not have glowing things to say about the morale or mettle of those involved in Russia’s current invasion.

“Morale was never high among Russian conscripts to begin with, and the prospect of being sent to a war zone would certainly not improve it,” he said. “No untrained conscript ever wants to fight; no matter how dumb and/or high on propaganda he is, he has some basic sense of self-preservation.”

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In contrast to the situation on the Ukrainian side of the border, Sasha claimed military volunteers among the Russian civilian population are almost non-existent—apart from “some crazies” who are at best outliers. He also gave credence to the reports of unwilling conscripts being strong-armed into front-line military service.

“It is actually a well-known practice,” he told VICE World News. “Some ten or 20 years ago it was entirely normal for a base commander to have a quota on new contract soldiers, and so conscripts would be forced to sign contracts with physical violence to meet that quota. 

“A return of this practice on the eve of an offensive war sounds very plausible to me.”

“On the Russian side, I do think low morale has created enormous problems for the military. It’s led to the unusually high abandonment and capture of armoured vehicles, fouled logistics lines, and forced the Russian Army to rely on indirect fire like artillery to bombard cities to regain momentum.”

Indeed, last time Russia was on the eve of an offensive in Ukraine, during the 2014-2015 war in Donbas, two pro-Russian separatist regions in east Ukraine, human rights groups were inundated with complaints from Russian conscripts claiming they’d been tricked into signing contracts to become professional soldiers and were afraid they were going to be sent across the border to fight. 

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A similar reluctance, ignorance and unwillingness among the Russian forces sent into Ukraine last month appears to be manifesting in fairly predictable ways: a fractured offensive, a disunited front and an army of begrudging insurgents whose morale is through the floor. Reports of troops abandoning, and in some cases sabotaging, vehicles and military hardware, as well as laying down their arms without a fight, have spread over the past week, most notably coming from Western military and Pentagon officials

While it’s difficult to verify exactly how many Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine since the invasion began two weeks ago, if Pentagon estimates of 2,000 to 4,000 are to be believed, that would represent, proportionately speaking, a significantly higher loss of life than the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In that conflict, a total of 15,000 Soviet troops were killed over the course of a decade. 

Against this backdrop of plummeting morale, Ukrainian government officials have come to the table to offer up their own cash incentives. Last week, the country’s defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov announced on social media that any Russian soldiers who surrendered to Ukraine would be rewarded not only with amnesty and magnanimity, but also a handsome payout.

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“Russian soldier! You were brought to our land to kill and die,” said Reznikov. “Do not follow criminal orders. We guarantee you a full amnesty and 5 million rubles [about $39,000] if you lay down your arms.”

TV presenter Maria Yefrosinina, an ambassador of the United Nations Population Fund in Ukraine, put forward a similar offer days earlier, pledging 5 million rubles in cryptocurrency, cash or electronic funds to any Russian troops who turned themselves over.

“As soon as soldiers with military equipment surrender, they receive money,” she said on Instagram. “They can give up right now and get money right now.”

A Ukrainian soldier holds an anti-tank weapon at a front line northeast of Kyiv on March 3, 2022. Photo: Aris Messinis / AFP

A Ukrainian soldier holds an anti-tank weapon at a front line northeast of Kyiv on March 3, 2022. Photo: Aris Messinis / AFP

Many analysts expected Ukraine to fall within days. But now, with the war entering its third week, Ukrainian forces are digging in and proving themselves as a force to be reckoned with, repelling a Russian offensive that is appearing increasingly tired, incohesive and disillusioned. 

“The relative morale of the two sides is playing a key role in shaping how the war is being fought,” said Jason Lyall, an associate professor in transnational studies at Dartmouth College. 

He told VICE World News that on the Ukrainian side, Zelenskyy’s decision to remain in Kyiv and his skilled media presence has boosted morale, increased the number of volunteers joining the resistance, and inspired confidence among international backers like NATO. 

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“On the Russian side, I do think low morale has created enormous problems for the military. It’s led to the unusually high abandonment and capture of armoured vehicles, fouled logistics lines, and forced the Russian Army to rely on indirect fire like artillery to bombard cities to regain momentum.”

While patriotism, defiance and esprit de corps seem to be fuelling the Ukrainian resistance for now, it’s unclear how long this will last. Russia appears to have momentarily wound back its ground offensive and resorted to broadstroke, indiscriminate bombing strikes on Ukrainian settlements in an attempt to turn the tide. As civilians become trapped in shelled cities and villages—cut off from medicine, heat and functioning water systems—the resolve of the defence forces may wane. 

As Lyall pointed out: “Morale in wartime can be fluid… and so it still remains unclear what will happen once Russia encircles the main cities, cutting food supplies and electricity.”

In any case, he adds, it’s important not to overstate the power of morale in winning the war. Russia—which has considerably higher troop numbers, as well as more advanced weapons and air superiority—could still win the conflict by sheer magnitude alone. 

At the same time though, Lyall suggests that if the rot of discontent runs deep enough in the Russian ranks then it may well be enough to erode the foundations of Putin’s war machine, and ultimately prevent it from gaining any more traction in Ukraine.

“The key unknown factor right now? What the average Russian soldier thinks about the war,” he said. “If they’re indifferent, a sudden Russian victory, especially on the Donbass, might boost morale across the army. If they actively hate the war, however, then the Russian Army is unlikely to improve much, and will likely become increasingly brutal toward civilians and its own soldiers as the war drags on.”

Outside the mosaic of videos, images, text conversations and soundbites showing depleted Russian morale, it’s almost impossible to know what the average soldier is feeling about the current state of things—especially as Putin leads a fierce crackdown on dissent within his own borders. 

For former Russian conscript Sasha, though, his country’s forces as a whole don’t have enough gas in the tank to compete with the dauntless Ukrainian masses.

“There are very few, if any, soldiers in Russia who could match their morale and cohesion, and Russian technological and numerical advantages are much less important if their troops don’t want to fight,” he said. “I’m entirely sure Ukrainians will ultimately defeat this evil.”

From the Ukrainian side of things, Berdnikov expressed a similar faith in his people’s ability to defend their homeland—come what may in the next few weeks, months and years.

“Every fucking thing I’ve seen today showed me how UNITED we are. Every person is a friend and a brother… I’ve never felt so good about being a Ukrainian and living here,” he said in another diary entry. “When you see it, you realise that no army will conquer us. Three million people in Kyiv and each one of them will fight however they can. 

“You come with a sword, you die from a sword.”

Follow Gavin Butler on Twitter.