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Amid A Chaotic Call-Up, Some Russian Draftees Are Returning Home In Body Bags. Now Putin Says Mobilization Is Ending.

Russian conscripts say goodbye to relatives at a recruiting office in Moscow in early October.
Russian conscripts say goodbye to relatives at a recruiting office in Moscow in early October.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin's unpopular mobilization drive extends into its fourth week, body bags containing the remains of draftees have begun to arrive back home, compounding fear and disgruntlement among citizens over a process that has appeared disorganized and arbitrary.

Russian authorities announced on October 13 that five men from the Urals region who were drafted in late September had been killed in Ukraine, possibly the first official confirmation of battlefield deaths among mobilized men. A day later, a funeral was held in Moscow for another man who was called up in the mobilization announced by Putin on September 21.

The deaths come amid widespread complaints by draftees and their families about poor conditions at mobilization points, including a lack of food, shelter, gear, and training. Many claim they were wrongly drafted, including some who say they had no prior military experience or suffered from medical conditions that prevent them from serving.

Anton Borisov, 36, was drafted in late September and sent to the front lines in Ukraine a few days later, along with other mobilized men from the Urals. He quickly met his death.

"There's something that bothers me: they say and show one thing [about training] on TV, but in fact, they didn't even have any training," Vladimir Borisov, whose son Anton was among the five mobilized men from the Urals who were killed, told local media outlet

Putin's announcement of what he called a "partial" mobilization came after a rout in the Kharkiv region, where Ukraine regained a large swath of territory that had been seized by Russian forces since the large-scale invasion began in February. Those losses and other setbacks have raised the prospect of a Russian military defeat that could undermine Putin's rule.

Putin said the mobilization would affect only reservists and men with combat experience, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the military would seek to call up about 300,000 men. Military officials have promised the mobilized men would receive at least two weeks of training before being sent to the front.

Putin's announcement sparked protests in dozens of cities, and tens of thousands of men have fled the country -- to avoid the draft.

Public Backlash

Struggling to contain the repercussions of the move, the government quickly passed laws promising draftees high salaries as well as compensation and debt forgiveness in the case of injury or death.

Timur Akhmetshin, a 34-year-old whose son just started first grade, was one of the five draftees from the Urals confirmed to have been killed, leaving his family devastated. His mother has suffered a stroke and his son is heartbroken, says his wife, Maria Akhmetshina.

She says financial compensation brings little solace. "What the hell do I need [the money] for?" she told "I'm, what, going to give [this money] to my son and say, 'Here, this is in exchange for your daddy's life?'"

Aleksei Martynov, 28, а Moscow city government official, was drafted on September 23 -- and was killed in battle less than three weeks later.

"He had no combat experience. He was sent to the front basically after a few days [of training]. Military leaders -- now is not the time to lie," Natalya Loseva, deputy editor in chief at state-owned media outlet RIA Novosti and an acquaintance of Martynov, wrote on her Telegram channel.

On the day of Martynov's funeral, October 14, Putin said that the "partial" mobilization would be over by the end of the month, adding that the military had drafted 220,000 men over the first three weeks.

"No additional mobilization actions are planned. There is no need for them. I think that within two weeks all mobilization activities will be completed," Putin said. Three days later, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said the mobilization was over in the capital, and suggested that there would be no repercussions for those who did not respond to draft notices.

Martynov's death reportedly sparked anger among Moscow city workers.

Jonathan Haslam, professor emeritus of the history of international relations at Cambridge University and a Russia expert, told a conference on October 16 that Putin had been "forced to cut short" the mobilization drive because of public backlash. "If the elderly get on the street because of the deaths of unwilling conscripts in Ukraine, in the end, the pressure may build" and undermine Putin's hold on power, he said.

Dara Massicot, a military analyst at the RAND Corporation, a U.S.-based think tank, told RFE/RL that Putin may have just been signaling the end of a first wave of mobilization. "I'm not confident in their timelines and what they are saying," she said.

Sleight Of Hand?

Putin's comments may be sleight of hand, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) suggested: Russia will commence its postponed conscription cycle on November 1, right around the time he said mobilization will end.

Following Russia's baseless claim of sovereignty over four Ukrainian regions on September 30, the new conscripts -- a total of 120,000 are expected to be called up -- can be sent to the front lines under Russian law.

Putin "likely needs to pause or end his partial mobilization to free up bureaucratic resources for conscription," the U.S.-based ISW said in an October 14 note.

Putin's government has repeatedly lied and misinformed the public about the war, which the Kremlin insists on pain of prosecution that Russians refer to only as a "special military operation." Shortly after Putin launched the invasion on February 24, he said there would be no general mobilization.

In September, Shoigu said that fewer than 6,000 Russian soldiers had been killed in the war, though Ukrainian and Western estimates of the Russian death toll are in the tens of thousands. Russia would not need to mobilize 300,000 men if its losses were as low as claimed, economist and Kremlin critic Sergei Guriyev said in an interview with Russkie Norm, a Youtube channel, published on October 5.

Last week, ahead of Putin's announcement that the call-up would end soon, police and military enlistment officers in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and several other cities were deployed in large numbers to mobilize young men.

Among other dragnet methods, they waited in apartment-building entranceways in St. Petersburg in the hope of catching men on their way to work in the morning, and searched hostels in Moscow at 4 a.m.

Many men who have sought to avoid the draft but cannot or do not wish to flee the country have chosen to hide out at hostels, dorms, or with friends.

Russian authorities used theaters and cinemas in Moscow to congregate and process those seized in the capital.

About 100 men were brought to the Roman Viktyuk drama theater in the north of Moscow, where they were pressured to sign a contract to serve, a rights group said, citing several of the men holed up.

Military analysts have said that Russia's mobilization will only slow Ukraine's efforts to regain territory, not stop them, but that Putin may be betting that Western military and financial support for Ukraine could weaken if the war drags on.

Suicides, Shootings

Some of the men called up in the mobilization have died before reaching Ukraine, including by suicide.

In the deadliest known incident involving soldiers within Russia since the invasion began, the military said that two men from an unspecified country in the Commonwealth of Independent States opened fire on October 15 at a training ground at Soloti, near the border in the Belgorod region, killing 11 servicemen and injuring 15 others. Unconfirmed accounts have put the death toll above 30, including the alleged attackers.

The Defense Ministry said the victims were volunteers, but the Soloti facility has been used to train draftees, and relatives of some of the mobilized men from the Urals who were killed said officials tried to claim they were volunteers, too.

It is not the first incident at Soloti. Earlier this month, a group of mobilized men allegedly refused to fight over scant training and medical attention, according to SOTA, an independent Telegram news channel.

"We want to return [home] and at least undergo a normal medical examination, and not at a medical unit where some doctor sits [there] and you have no idea at all what kind of doctor he is," one of the soldiers told SOTA. "We want to receive normal training. We went to the training grounds once [after being drafted]. No one here knows how to shoot."

Putin has said that mobilized soldiers are receiving 5-10 days initial training and another 5-15 days in their fighting units before being sent to the front, a period analyst have called inadequate.

Many aren't even getting that much, and analysts say the quality of the training is questionable, too, because many of Russia's best instructors have been sent to the front and some have not returned.

RAND's Massicot says it's not surprising that Russia's mobilization is "very unorganized," because the country -- and even its military, which was largely left out of decision-making ahead of the invasion -- had not expected to fight a large-scale land war.

"The mobilization system has not been a priority for the last 10+ years," she said.

Mark Krutov of RFE/RL's Russian Service and North.Realities contributed to this report
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    RFE/RL's Russian Service

    RFE/RL's Russian Service is a multi-platform alternative to Russian state-controlled media, providing audiences in the Russian Federation with informed and accurate news, analysis, and opinion.

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.