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“We dug trenches with spoons and looked for ways to hide.” How mobilized men were sent to frontline unprepared and unsupplied

Draft dodging in Russia is now more challenging due to the implementation of electronic summons, which will affect both conscripts and reservists. However, the system is already struggling to handle those who have been mobilized, with soldiers and their families lodging complaints about inadequate training, substandard uniforms, and incompetent commanders. The Insider conducted interviews with Russian soldiers and their relatives to investigate the kind of “training” recruits receive, and the alarming accounts of being forced into suicide missions, abandoned in forests, and subjected to long periods without food or medical attention.

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  • Lack of Training: “We just drank and slept for weeks”

  • Cough it up: “The whole company pooled money to buy an UAZ”

  • Suicide orders: “Many had concussions, one had half his head blown off”

  • Lack of motivation: “I will not take part in the killing of Ukrainians”

  • There is a way out: “Many servicemen managed to avoid being sent to Ukraine”

Lack of Training: “We just drank and slept for weeks”

Open sources indicate that almost 20,000 Russian soldiers have been confirmed as KIA in Ukraine, surpassing the officially recognized losses suffered by citizens of the USSR over a decade of war in Afghanistan. It is worth noting that this figure only accounts for those whose names have been identified, and the actual number of casualties could be twice as high. The Americans estimate that the total number of casualties, including the wounded, prisoners of war, and missing in action, could be as high as 200,000. To address the shortage of experienced soldiers, the Russian military leadership has been deploying not only those who completed their mandatory military service several years ago but also individuals without any combat training or those with non-combat backgrounds who were previously in the reserves or did not serve at all.

The training of mobilized soldiers prior to their deployment to Ukraine is often limited to a few rounds of firing an assault rifle or, in some cases, not conducted at all. The repercussions of this were evident during the Avdiivka fortifications assault, which was carried out by mobilized soldiers from the Irkutsk region. As a result, other military personnel have expressed concerns about being sent to combat without proper training. It may be assumed that the hasty deployment of untrained soldiers into the battlefield was prompted by the major offensive launched in February. However, this is not the case, as the Russian military command has been following a common practice of neglecting recruit training since the start of the war.

Military expert Pavel Luzin notes that mobilization in Russia has affected people who are unmotivated and, for the most part, untrained:

“They recruited people who lacked the desire to engage in combat and were unable to avoid it, either due to their submissiveness, fear, or naivety. However, attempting to train such individuals is futile. The Russian army's intellectual and moral decay has been a deliberate Kremlin policy that has persisted for at least two decades, with the involvement of such personnel. This course of action was compounded by the military training system's refusal to undergo reforms in 2011, as well as the overall decline of Russian school education. Consequently, within the Ground Forces and Airborne Forces, among contracted officers, sergeants, and soldiers, the military personnel primarily consist of individuals who represent the bottom of the barrel in terms of their training, and are characterized by their obedience.”

Luzin believes that a soldier's full preparation period for combat operations should last for at least six months. However, even the official standards of the Russian army permit conscripts to be deployed to the front earlier.

“The Russian army's standard training period for a soldier is four months, which is inadequate even with intensive training. This time frame is established by the Military Service Regulation, a legal act that permits the deployment of a conscript to war after four months of service. However, in reality, a soldier's normal training period ranges from six to twelve months, depending on their specialty, and is contingent on competent junior commanders. Due to the mobilized individuals only being formally considered as reserves, they had lost all the knowledge and skills they had previously acquired, rendering them at the same level as the initial recruits.”

But even these four months of training, provided by the state, turn into a complete sham. Yaroslav, who served under contract in a military unit in Chebarkul, says that the training ground where mobilized men were supposed to be trained was turned into a tent camp, and all the “training” turned into constant boozing:

“In early January, our unit experienced a mass exodus to Ukraine, with almost the entire base being emptied out. There were originally eight thousand mobilized soldiers, but now only a handful remain. Prior to the exodus, the mobilized men were living in tents near the firing range, and the conscripts were relegated to doing menial tasks such as cleaning and carrying equipment, with no training taking place. However, when the soldiers received 200,000 rubles ($2,500) on their bank accounts, they went into a frenzy. To prevent them from leaving the base, they were allowed to collect money and rent a Gazelle truck, which was used to bring in daily supplies of alcohol, cigarettes, and meat. The truck drove to the base every day, constantly filled to the brim.”

Yaroslav says that ultimately, a few months later, the mobilized men were sent to Ukraine without training:

“They spent two to three months indulging in food and drinks, and then were dispatched to Ukraine with such “fine” training. Not once did I witness them firing a shot or undergoing any military training. The same applied to those who had served many years ago, but they had never handled an assault rifle or experienced austere living conditions. The extent of their compulsory service was limited to menial tasks such as loading or janitorial work.”
Not once did I witness the mobilized firing a shot or undergoing any military training

Because of the lack of training and operational firearms, only a few of the 500 mobilized were still alive after two weeks at the front. aroslav confirms that those who managed to survive are usually sent back to the front again:

“I arrived in Chebarkul and met with a group of mobilized soldiers who were later sent to Ukraine in two separate groups consisting of 500 and 300 people. After a few weeks, I encountered them again, finding them drunk and standing outside a store. When asked why they were back, the soldiers explained that only nine of them had survived after two weeks at the front, out of the 500 who had been sent. They had been given outdated and rusty assault rifles from the 70's and 80's, as mobilized soldiers are typically not authorized to use newer or more advanced equipment. Many soldiers in their unit were killed, and the commanders abandoned them, but they had to stay and were not allowed to retreat. After almost everybody was killed, the nine soldiers ran away and returned to the Chebarkul base. I learned that surviving soldiers are usually being kept in a basement and it appears that the authorities were waiting for them to come to their senses and agree to return to Ukraine. Unfortunately, you can get a bullet from both your compatriots and Ukrainians these days.”

At first, the Ministry of Defense tried to compensate for the large losses in the army by dispatching contract servicemen, but later it started to send mobilized servicemen as well. According to Yaroslav, their training is similar to that of the mobilized in Chebarkul:

“Before being transferred to Chebarkul, I served in Tajikistan; I went there under the impression that nobody from there would be sent to Ukraine. However, it turned out that this was not the case. Now, there are similar circumstances for the mobilized people there. Upon contacting some of my acquaintances in Tajikistan, they informed me that around 200 mobilized people were recently sent to Ukraine. The base in Tajikistan was originally intended for contract soldiers, and nobody seems to understand why the mobilized soldiers are there. Tajikistan is an Islamic country with its own culture and customs. Upon our arrival, we were given a lecture on how to behave respectfully. However, this does not concern the mobilized people who continue to receive meat and alcohol from the city every day.”

Cough it up: “The whole company pooled money to buy an UAZ”

The absence of proper training was compounded by the commanders' orders to the mobilized soldiers to purchase gear and even repair their tanks. Reports highlighting the scarcity of equipment for the mobilized personnel started emerging after the “partial” mobilization was announced. However, the reality was far worse as the mobilized troops were expected to not only buy gear but also contribute towards the purchase of new equipment. According to Anatoly, after he arrived at his unit, his training was limited to a few assault rifle shots. Instead, the entire company was ordered to contribute towards the purchase of a UAZ vehicle to be used for transportation after they were sent to Ukraine.

“The police picked me up at the entrance to my house, saying that they had already been looking for me for four days. When they brought me to the military registration and enlistment office, they explained that I didn't need to sign anything - everything had already been signed for me. I would never do that voluntarily. In the end I was sent to a unit in Penza. There was no special training, we were taken to the range to practice shooting a few times – and that was it. I realized that if they sent me to Ukraine, I would die there. I realized that I didn't need all that – I wanted to stay alive, and I had a family.
A month later I went to a hospital with back pain - I had once had a fractured spine. I was referred to the military medical commission and hospitalized. During my hospitalization I got a phone call from my company commander, and he asked me to buy an UAZ and a Niva for the company. They needed vehicles so our company could move around and carry ammunition and supplies to Ukraine. I was just about to be discharged from the hospital, and I decided to make this purchase during my ten-day rehabilitation. But this was not how it turned out. When I arrived at the artillery school after my discharge - the temporary deployment area had been moved there - I was told by the major that I was going to the front tomorrow.
As a result, the next day I jumped the fence and went home to my family. But I thought it would be better to buy an UAZ, so I wouldn't have any problems in the unit. I rented an apartment in Penza and started looking for an UAZ. The whole company pooled their money to buy the vehicle, and the money was transferred to the wife of our commander - about 250,000 rubles.
However, when I came back, I was told that a criminal case had been filed against me for abandoning my unit without permission. However, I was away for a short time, and I did buy a vehicle, as my commander asked me to. I left the UAZ there and it was transported to Voronezh, and from there to Ukraine.
The UAZ was needed so that our company could move around and carry ammunition to Ukraine. We all pooled our money to buy it
I was scheduled to appear before a pre-investigation military-medical commission. They gave me Category A, which was inconceivable given my illnesses. One of the commission members told me it was no big deal, my relatives would cry for two years and then forget about me. Now I am in a rented apartment, and my case is still being processed, and I am technically assigned to my unit. They called me recently and told me I had to go back there. My lawyer confirmed that and advised me to go to my unit. But we're trying to make arrangements for me not to stay there. No one wants to stay in a place like that, it's not good there at all. The guys booze all day, and there's a roll call in the evening. The routine is like that. Training stopped long ago, because it has been supposedly completed. Apparently, it consisted of those few times they took us to the range to practice shooting. And the last time I was there, a colonel came to visit and performed a drill, he showed us the gear we would receive upon being dispatched to Ukraine. After that the guys received some of the items, but definitely not as many as were shown to us.”

Suicide orders: “Many had concussions, one had half his head blown off”

The Russian military is experiencing losses due to the soldiers' lack of motivation and understanding of their tasks in Ukraine. Many soldiers are reluctant to become disposable and are unable or unwilling to kill. These feelings are intensified when the soldiers' expectations are not met. They expect to rely on the professional military and receive training, but instead are immediately sent to the front lines.

Russian commanders are using suicidal attacks to mark AFU firing positions and then target the Ukrainians with artillery or mortars. This situation was reported in the media multiple times. Yekaterina's brother was among the mobilized men who were sent to the “DNR” without any training or instructions and thrown into combat near Marinka. After the attack, the military refused to participate in any further combat operations.

“My brother called me and said: “We've been ordered to attack. What should I do? I have 20 minutes to make a decision. They're threatening me with court if I don't do it.” It came as a surprise to me. I thought that he was not involved in any fighting, but only training. After all, when he was transferred to Donetsk, I immediately started writing to him, telling him not to get involved in anything and not to go anywhere. But my brother said that he was just being taken for a three-month training course. I knew right then that there was something wrong.
Before that call, he had been in Lysychansk, digging trenches for the other guys. He had been told that they would be taken to the third line, but in fact it looked like this: there were two sides - the AFU on one side and the Russians on the other, with the guys who had been brought to dig the trenches in the middle, under constant shelling. My brother told me that they were not even given shovels. They were just told to sit and wait for the tools.
Eventually they were divided into small groups. They found abandoned cabins and settled there to wait for their superiors. They didn't even have any food - no dry rations were given to them. They boarded up the windows, stripped the flooring and dug a small hole to provide cover in case of an attack. They had to dig with camping spoons.
They dug a hole for cover in case of fire with camping spoons
Two days later they took a car, drove to the market, and bought food, water, nails, and shovels. They went back and lived like that for another week and a half. Then they were picked up, given five minutes to pack up and taken back to Donetsk, and then to the front line - first to Oleksandrivka and then to Marinka.
My brother is a stormtrooper, and his group was supposed to capture a fortified position, but in fact they were just trying to survive. Some were hiding in the woods, many were shell-shocked, one had half his head blown off by a shell. They didn't think about refusing to participate until they saw it with their own eyes.
After just two days since the first battle, they were sent back again. My brother told me over the phone that many soldiers were still experiencing disorientation and had not fully recovered. Shockingly, medical assistance was not being provided to these soldiers. As a result, the soldiers refused to comply with orders to return to the battlefront. In response, they were instructed to sit and await further instructions from their commander, who threatened them with the possibility of trial and imprisonment.
I realized I had to do something, so I started looking for information on the Internet. I tried to figure out how I could get him out of there. That's how I found the movement of conscientious objectors, who immediately told me that the case would not go to court, it would just be dropped. Then I, together with some volunteers, found some guys who had left under similar circumstances, and no one had put them away. We found out all the details and told the guys to leave, but only my brother and his friend had the nerve to follow through.
We wanted them to make their way through fields and forests, and then go to the military police, but in Russia. The commander didn't keep an eye on the group, so it wasn't difficult to get away unnoticed. According to our plan, the drop off point was about nine kilometers from the checkpoint. But then I found out that the guys were thinking of going back. The rest of the guys who didn't go with them were stripped naked, disarmed and taken to an undisclosed location. They called my brother and told him the command was waiting for them to return until the evening, or face the consequences. Thank God I managed to talk them out of going back.
Those who didn't go with them were stripped naked, disarmed, and taken to an undisclosed location
However, our plan failed anyway. They went through the forest not nine kilometers away, as planned, but just one kilometer from the checkpoint. Naturally, they were spotted and caught in the Rostov region. Their captors took away their military ID cards and called the military police, who told them to bring them back to the “DNR.” They took them away in the morning, and we didn't know where they were or what happened to them for three days. According to my brother, during that time, they were being re-educated. They were told that they would only be released if they agreed to continue fighting, otherwise they were threatened with seven years in prison. They agreed.
As a result they were transferred to another company, where the commander was more loyal. I tried to dissuade them, but they said they would wait for leave. Now they were sent on two-day missions after six days of rest and they didn't try to get in trouble - they just hid in basements the whole time. Sometimes they would say they were on a mission, while in fact they weren't. Their squad leader was covering for them. But then the squad leader was wounded and there was no one to cover them. In order to get out of there, my brother started pushing for leave. In January he succeeded, but it only turned out for the worse.
He went on leave and, of course, did not want to return to the combat zone. They threatened him they would open a case of unauthorized leave and refusal to follow orders and would hand it over to the investigative committee. They said that no one had ever given him permission to go on leave - they don't have any paperwork there, so it was very difficult to prove otherwise.
In the end, on the advice of a lawyer, my brother returned to his unit, but not in the “DNR,” but in Rostov. He spent about three days there. They persuaded him to go back, but he insisted and began gathering documents to submit to a military medical commission. At the same time, we sent a report for his transfer to alternative military service. But they say that he has no right to ask for any kind of transfer, because the presidential decree on mobilization cancels everything that was before. We think we can get him out based on his health situation. We can't do it any other way, otherwise there will really be a criminal prosecution.
Besides my brother, 200 people didn't come back from leave. Nobody wants to go back there. Even during that first mission, when they were bombarded on all sides, all the guys were thinking only about how to hide, not how to shoot someone. My brother still can't stop looking at what lies beneath his feet as he walks, and he tenses up at the sound of the ambulance siren.
The guys who stayed behind told me that the unit commander paid a visit and threatened them. He put a gun to a guy's head and told the company commander: 'If anyone else refuses to go into battle, we'll shoot him in the head, and there'll be no responsibility for it'.”

The Russian command is marked by a consistent lack of regard for military ethics, widespread arbitrariness, planning errors, and chaos. Officers are known to refuse orders, while commanders routinely abandon soldiers on the battlefield without communication or further instructions. According to Aisel, the wife of a mobilized soldier, her husband's company was left stranded in the woods without any communication or provisions, after being transferred to the Luhansk region.

“A month after my husband was taken to the unit, I lost contact with him and only found out through the wives of other mobilized men that he had been sent to Ukraine. One day my husband called me from an unfamiliar number. I looked up the code on the Internet and realized that he was in Luhansk. He said that they had been dropped off in the woods and abandoned - they had been there chewing leaves for about four days and didn't know what to do or where to go. They wandered around like that until the proper battalions found them and took them in. Even after they were taken in, they had almost no food or water, but as complaints piled up, humanitarian aid started coming.”

Lack of motivation: “I will not take part in the killing of Ukrainians”

In April, CIT analysts reported that approximately 20-40 percent of servicemen who have been to Ukraine do not return. This statistic includes those who initially refuse to be deployed to the combat zone. Alexander's case is an example of this, as he refused to sign a contract to be sent to Ukraine when he was mobilized. Despite threats and pressure, he stood his ground and insisted on being hospitalized for treatment instead.

“On September 20 I received a draft notice with no mention of the impending mobilization,” Alexander says. “It said that I had to come 'to clarify my registration data'. My friends told me I just had to come to the enlistment office at the appointed time and tell them what had changed, nothing more. I did not expect anything else, so on the 22nd I went to the enlistment office. My military ID card was immediately taken away and I was told to wait in the corridor for the military commissioner to answer all my questions. No one was allowed outside. The commissar read out a list of 20-25 names, and everyone on the list had to get on a bus and go to a military unit. No one answered our questions, they said we had to follow orders. We did not have any medical commission or checkups, no mobilization orders were handed out. They just put us on the bus, and that was it.
I only had my wallet, passport, military ID card, and the draft notice. With this set of items, I left for the military unit - the division headquarters in our city, where further distribution took place. Those who did not agree were told to wait, those who did not object were sent to sign contracts. At the end of the day only ten people remained. They started threatening us - they tried to get us to sign contracts under threat of imprisonment, saying that we had no other options. Some got intimidated and signed, but I and four other people stood our ground. Then they assigned us to various units and took us to the bus. I felt sick and decided to leave through the checkpoint to see my relatives. Surprisingly, they let me out. I went to get some medicine, and when I came back, they told me that everybody who refused to sign a contract would be kept overnight at the military registration and enlistment office - the military prosecutor was supposed to deal with the situation.
I only had my wallet, passport, military ID card, and the draft notice. With this set of items, I left for the military unit
The military prosecutor did not come the next day. We were told that we could write a report and go home for the weekend. However, it turned out that I was already on the list of those who had left their unit without authorization and had to report to where I was assigned. Then I went to the military prosecutor's office, where they told me that in any case I had to report to my unit. While I was thinking about what to do, they called me and told me that I was already a wanted person and if I didn't show up they would open a criminal case.
Once in the unit, I met a woman from the personnel department, who promised to help me, agreeing that I was unfit for service. I wrote a report and went home until the next Monday. But there was still no answer. Then I wrote a second one, where I undertook to call them every day, without actually reporting to the unit.
After a few months had passed, I began receiving threatening calls from my unit in November, warning me of potential imprisonment. My wife and I decided to take action by speaking with the prosecutor's office and filing a lawsuit in court. The court session was scheduled quickly and took place just two days later. Unfortunately, we lost the case and all of our requests, including the request to switch to alternative military service, were denied. Shortly after, I received a letter stating that if I did not return to my unit, I would be referred to the Investigative Committee. I complied and returned to the unit, but was subsequently prevented from leaving.
Following this, I submitted a report to the military-medical commission, explaining that my psychological state had deteriorated. After visiting a civilian doctor, I received a preliminary diagnosis of anxiety-depressive disorder. However, the doctor at the hospital accused me of cowardice instead of providing medical care. Despite this, I persisted and eventually convinced the doctor to transfer me to another hospital, as he had received orders to avoid giving anyone a Category D rating. At this point, I was not even allowed to leave for simple errands such as going to the store, and all my hospital visits required an escort. Faced with these challenges, I decided to activate my alternative civilian service report and repeatedly stated that I was unwilling to learn how to kill and would not participate in such actions.
I was not even allowed to leave for simple errands such as going to the store, and all my hospital visits required an escort
After some time had passed, another mobilized man and I were summoned to the personnel department of the division headquarters and reprimanded for failing to perform service duties. Consequently, we were assigned to handle paperwork at the headquarters. Later, I was hospitalized, but to my surprise, the hospital was not in Podolsk but rather in the place where I was initially taken. A different doctor was present this time and he recommended that I be transferred to another hospital, where I am currently undergoing testing and awaiting a decision from higher authorities. Once again, my request for alternative service was denied because of the lack of federal laws supporting such requests and the outcome of our court case. Nevertheless, I remain resolute in my refusal to take part in the killing of Ukrainians.”

There is a way out: “Many servicemen managed to avoid being sent to Ukraine”

According to Elena Popova, coordinator of the Conscientious Objectors movement, it is more difficult to work with those who have been in the war zone even for a short time: most of those who have returned are in a state of shock and do not understand how to avoid being sent there again.

“Following the New Year, the number of appeals we received decreased. People have come to realize that it is not necessary to comply with draft notices. However, difficulties have emerged for those who have returned from Ukraine and are attempting to quit military service. Such people face challenges building a line of defense on their own due to their psychological issues, which are becoming increasingly prevalent. Unfortunately, the number of cases does not correlate with the number of people currently at war - it is merely a drop in the ocean. The situation is even more complex for those who remain in Ukraine. I understand that many of them are traumatized, but I am unable to provide clear instructions as each case must be handled on an individual basis.
A woman approached me, explaining that her husband had been sent to Luhansk without proper training. Although I am not responsible for training, my role involves helping individuals out of difficult situations. When I suggested to her that her husband cease his involvement in the conflict, the woman began discussing some ailments her husband had, but they were not serious enough for him to be dismissed from service. Later on, I learned that the woman had brought her child with her to the war zone in Luhansk to reunite with her husband after a prolonged separation.
I don't think people understand where they're going. We tried to come up with some tricks to get him out of there. He had three days off at that time, and he and his wife got a hotel room. I suggested they do everything possible to get him sent to a hospital in Russia, where he could write a report and refuse military service. Those people appear to lack willpower, as they readily hand over their military ID cards when approached by the “LNR” police. It begs the question, why do they do so? I tried to tell her, they were not even the military, just the “LNR” police, Russian servicemen were not under their jurisdiction. But no one listens, everyone is afraid of something and lives in a non-existent reality.
Those people appear to lack willpower, as they readily hand over their military ID cards when approached by the “LNR” police
People who are inexperienced in standing up for their rights often succumb to pressure from the police and military. In the early stages, there were numerous instances of involuntary conscription, particularly in cities such as St. Petersburg and Moscow, where people come to work. Young men were forcefully taken from their hostel rooms in the dead of night, had their passports confiscated, and were then escorted to the military registration and enlistment offices. While some people were fortunate enough to reach out to volunteers for help, the period of mobilization was marked by a multitude of harrowing stories.
It is perplexing why they only seek help after their husbands or sons have already been sent to Ukraine. What prevented them from seeking assistance earlier, before the situation escalated to such a fatal degree? It seems that only when they witness the dire conditions, lack of training, and death do they become motivated to act.
Only when they witness the dire conditions, lack of training, and death do they become motivated to act
Fortunately, there is a way out for many of these servicemen who have filed their reports, which helps them avoid being sent to Ukraine. We recommend pushing for alternative service, as we see no other viable solutions. Medical exemptions are rare and typically only granted in severe cases such as when someone has lost a limb. However, in such instances, our organization's efforts may not be required.
It is crucial to understand that when you submit a report for alternative service, its objective is not necessarily to secure a transfer but to prevent being sent to war. In the initial stages of the conflict, people were sometimes released from their units, but such cases are now rare. It is essential to realize that everyone who files a report will likely remain in their current unit until the end of their service term.
There was an incident in which a young man was forcefully being taken to a train and sent to Ukraine, despite submitting a report for alternative service. He said, “Consider my report first.” The commanding officer ordered for him to be taken to the train station by force. However, the situation was captured on camera by the young man's mother, who promptly contacted the FSB. It took some time to resolve the matter, but eventually, the young man was returned to his unit. The commanding officer then filed a complaint with the garrison court, alleging that the mobilized man had committed a disciplinary offense by refusing to follow orders. The young man's mother engaged a lawyer, and the case was transferred to the military investigation department. Although the outcome of the case remains unclear, the command was unable to send the young man to fight in Ukraine without his consent.”

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