A new law makes it harder for Russians to dodge the draft

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed new legislation to overhaul the country’s conscription system, which will make it harder for Russians to avoid being called up for military service, and keep at least some of those who already fled the country away longer.

Putin signed the bill, which was hastily passed by Russia’s upper and lower houses of parliament this week, into law on Friday.

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its 14th month, the move will create a system where conscription and draft notices will be delivered electronically through a widely used government services portal instead of being hand-delivered.

Even if the recipient doesn’t open the summons, the government will consider it received.

After receiving the summons, the person has 20 days to show up at the enlistment office, and will be banned from leaving the country until they do so. Those who fail to turn up at a military enlistment office will be banned from leaving the country and face restrictions within Russia, including not being able to register a vehicle, small business or buy and sell real estate.

“I totally understand that it is impossible [to return] in the near future, until the war is over,” said Max Nikolsky, who left for Turkey on vacation just hours before Russia announced its partial mobilization back on Sept. 22, 2022.

“That’s the thing that hit me hard. I can’t go back. It’s too risky.”

Dodging draft notices

Nikolsky says his fear of starting over again in a new country is far less than his fear of going to war, which is why his His 10-day holiday turned into a much longer stay in Istanbul, where he was able to secure a Turkish residency permit.

In November, he discovered that a draft notice had been delivered to his office in Moscow, where he worked in the media.

Russian conscripts called up for military service line up before boarding a train as they the depart for garrisons at a railway station in Omsk, Russia November 27, 2022. REUTERS/Alexey Malgavko
Russian conscripts called up for military service line up before boarding a train as they depart for garrisons at a railway station in Omsk, Russia, on Nov. 27, 2022. (Alexey Malgavko/Reuters)

He was forced to resign, because he didn’t want to return to Russia. Nor did he want to get his company in trouble for employing a draft dodger.

Prior to the new legislation, enlistment notices have been personally delivered to those who are conscripted through the country’s bi-annual military call-up, along with those mobilized to fight in Ukraine.

Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said officials wanted to move to an electronic contract system to make it more modern and “convenient for citizens,” and to clear up the “mess” at some of the military’s recruitment offices.

During the initial call-up in the fall — where the government announced its plan to mobilize 300,000 soldiers — there were reports of ineligible people being drafted, including those with medical conditions. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of fled the country at the time, clogging the land borders into Kazakhstan and Georgia.

Nikolsky made it out just hours before the rush, and said it’s maddening that Russia is using its government services portal to deliver draft notices.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu take part in a wreath laying ceremony on the Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow, Russia, February 23, 2023.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu took part in a wreath-laying ceremony on the Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow, Russia, on Feb. 23, 2023. (Reuters)

He says he used to think Russia’s Gosuslugi, a digital portal where citizens can access several state and municipal services in one spot, was an innovative piece of Russian technology that made life easier and more comfortable.

Now, he says that notion has already turned on its head.

“It appears to be some kind of digital gulag or something,” he told CBC News in Istanbul earlier this week.

Bolstering military

While Nikolsky is upset that the law means he won’t be able to return and visit his family, he says his male friends who remain in Moscow are in a state of panic. He says they don’t know if the government will “exploit” this new law and mobilize men to trap them in Russia.

Officials have repeatedly dismissed claims that the country is on the brink of another mass mobilization, but in December, Russia’s defense minister said that the country was looking to add an additional 350,000 combat personnell to the military.

A view shows a board reading: "Our defenders!  Thank you, dear ones!" in support of the Russian military in front of the country's foreign ministry headquarters in Moscow, Russia February 16, 2023.
A billboard that reads ‘Our defenders! Thank you, dear ones!’ in support of the Russian military is seen in front of the country’s foreign ministry headquarters in Moscow on Feb. 16, 2023. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

Russia is also moving toward changing the age of conscription when men are eligible to be called up in the spring and autumn drafts. The current age range is between 18 and 27, and it will be increased so men between the ages of 21 and 30 can be conscripted.

Previously, men who wanted to avoid being drafted could try and stay off the radar of military officers by living at an undisclosed address. But once the electronic draft is implemented, it will be no use.

Under the new law, if people disregard the draft notice, they will have theirs assets frozen and be banned from leaving the country.

Preparation for new mobilization?

Alexey Tabalov, a lawyer who runs the School of Conscripts, an organization that helps Russian draftees understand their rights, says there are still avenues to appeal the draft, but men should be preparing a plan now.

Tabalov, who spoke to CBC from an undisclosed location in Europe, said men should be thinking about whether they might qualify for a medical exemption or be able to push for an alternative assignment in a civilian role.

He says if this isn’t successful, and people aren’t able to live their lives under the new restrictions, the last resort would be to go off the state’s radar, or hide” in Russia’s vast taiga (boreal) forest, as he put it. He says another extreme option is going abroad.

In Russian cities, billboards and information campaigns try to woo men to enlist, promising those deployed to Ukraine monthly salaries equivalent to $3,500 Cdn, which is three times the average Russian salary.

Simon Sablin, 27, is another expat who says the new law will keep him out of Russia. Also currently in Istanbul, Sablin left Russia when the war started, but his mother and sister still resided in Moscow.

Simon Sablin, 27. left Russia shortly after it launched is full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb 24, 2022. He says he won't return to the country, as long as the war continues and President Vladimir Putin remains in power.
Simon Sablin, 27, left Russia shortly after it launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. He says he won’t return to the country as long as the war continues and President Vladimir Putin remains in power. (Diego Cupolo/CBC )

He says while he has a document stating he should be exempt from military service because of his health, he doesn’t trust that it will actually keep him from being sent to the front.

“I feel like they are preparing themselves for a new [mobilization] waves,” he said.

“As soon as I step foot in the country, I might get served with a notice to actually show up for the military, and I won’t have any opportunity to leave the country.”

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