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“Forcing Ukrainians to take up arms against their country is a war crime.” How Russia is mobilizing Ukrainians in occupied territories

The “partial mobilization” Vladimir Putin declared in Russia has engulfed occupied Ukrainian territories as well. Thousands of Ukrainians have become hostage to Putin’s regime, faced with a constant risk of ending up in the Russian army. Volodymyr Zelensky has called upon the residents of temporarily occupied regions to “evade Russian mobilization and sabotage the enemy's activities”. There is reliable data on Ukrainian passport holders being mobilized into the Russian army in Crimea, the “LDPR”, and Melitopol. Ukrainian nationals displaced to Russia can also be recruited to the Russian army even without Russian papers.

  • “Forcing Ukrainians to join the Russian army is a war crime”

  • “Either you go to war, or we shoot you”

  • “It's better to live in Ukraine under shellfire than become Russia's cannon fodder”

  • “The mobilization could result in the implicit genocide of the Crimean Tatar population”

  • “If Kherson residents lay their hands on firearms, they'll overthrow the Russians”

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In the occupied Donbas, mobilization began as early as in February, with men being forced to enlist in the “LDPR” army. The “partial mobilization” Russia declared on September 21 applied to occupied Ukrainian territories by default, with thousands of Ukrainians becoming its hostages. Human rights defenders urge Ukrainians to leave these regions and Russia.

According to Melitopol mayor Ivan Fedorov, “men of all ages are being rounded up in the streets and brought to the commandants’ office for registration”. In occupied Berdiansk, those reluctant to sign up as volunteers were told to bring one or two men in their stead. “It’s not too late to leave through temporarily occupied Crimea to Georgia or the EU,” Fedorov suggests.

“Forcing Ukrainians to join the Russian army is a war crime”

Every Human Being is an organization offering legal assistance to all victims of Russia's military aggression, forcibly displaced individuals, and those living in occupied or annexed territories. Polina Murygina, lawyer and project founder, remarks that the organization focuses on legal assistance to Ukrainians who struggle with protecting their rights in a war setting.

“Our most important recommendation is to avoid showing up at the military enlistment office for whatever reason. If you have to, you can get a letter of attorney for someone exempt from military duty and get them to submit your papers for you.”

As Polina points out, it's important to explain what happens during the occupation:

“Many make the mistake of thinking that mobilization does not apply to them because they are Ukrainian nationals. This is false. Russia may use torture but does it covertly. Meanwhile, lawlessness is rampant across the occupied territories. No one even bothers to pretend people have rights or that any norms are observed. No one can guarantee you won’t be shot in the street – not with the war going on.”

Whereas the Donetsk and the Luhansk regions began mobilizing their men once Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, after September 21, the residents of other occupied territories, such as Melitopol, began receiving draft notices. Crimeans are getting them too.

Forcible mobilization in the “LPR”

Mobilized men's health status is of little concern. Russia is known to have recruited patients suffering from spinal muscular atrophy or schizophrenia, in contradiction to its own law. Even the lack of a Russian passport is not an obstacle.

As KrymSOS analyst Evgeny Yaroshenko explains, forcible mobilization does not necessarily involve physical force. Sometimes threats of violence, coercion, or psychological pressure are used instead.

“The fact that Ukrainian nationals are being forced to join the Russian army is a gross violation of international humanitarian law and a war crime.”

“Either you go to war, or we shoot you”

Ukrainians living in occupied territories appealed to Russian officials as early as in April, explaining that they had relatives in Ukraine and could not wage war against them. In response, they heard: “Either you go to war, or we shoot you.” Polina Murygina remarks that such cases were kept off the public's radar.

“Russia's mobilization of Ukrainians has little difference from that of Russian nationals. However, trying to force Ukrainians to take up arms against their own country and their relatives is a war crime. In April and May, we witnessed the outrageous practice of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs mobilizing the residents of Crimea, who are treated as Russian nationals, into the army of the ‘DPR’ and the ‘LPR’. Russia abuses its authority because mobilizing foreign nationals is unacceptable, even into the army of a barely-recognized state. It’s the same as mobilizing Russians into the US army. And it's been going on for a while.”

Since February 24, over 1.5 million Ukrainians have been deported to Russia. Considering that many left without papers, the real numbers could be way higher. Ukrainians are handed Russian passports and sent to war against their near and dear. Every Human Being helps Ukrainians with the paperwork necessary for leaving Russia.

Their situation is complicated by the dangers awaiting them in Russia: Ukrainian nationals are often detained and interrogated, placed in remand prisons, prosecuted, labeled “extremists” and “terrorists”, and branded “Ukro-Nazis”.

The “partial mobilization” has made leaving Russia way more difficult. Women can leave more easily, though they are also questioned at the border. As for men, there is no way they can avoid an interrogation by border guards. The FSB has started issuing personal notices banning travel outside Russian Federation. Luckily, there still are land border crossing points.

Having a Russian passport is another risk factor because its holders are treated as Russian nationals despite them having Ukrainian citizenship, Murygina remarks.

“Some Ukrainians are forced to accept Russian passports. The FSB approaches them, threatens them, takes away their Ukrainian papers, and forces them to apply for a Russian ID. Those who refuse are told: ‘So you don't want a Russian passport? You're Nazis!’ The level of pressure on civilians is immense. Even mothers get threats: they are told they will be investigated and their children, placed in care. Unfortunately, many cases are overlooked because the war looms heavy on the agenda. In such periods, the challenges of civilians are often dismissed – a phenomenon observed by many human rights defenders.”
So you don't want a Russian passport? You're Nazis!

Mobilization and the issuing of passports occur in parallel but aren’t necessarily linked. Lawyers explain Russia’s policy of imposing its citizenship by its perception of itself as a liberator country; Murygina also remarks that the Russian government keeps up appearances by broadcasting news stories about Ukrainians who are happy to get new passports.

“It's a political move: to show how everyone loves Russia and wants to be Russian. In fact, everyone is avoiding mobilization regardless of their politics because no one sees any point in the war. Russia recently passed a new federal constitutional law on the “accession” of the occupied territories. The law contains an element that is completely illegitimate even in the Russian legal framework: proclaiming all residents of the occupied territories Russian citizens by default. Meanwhile, only a handful of them have accepted Russian passports.”

Even before the occupied regions of Ukraine “acceded” to Russia, they started issuing passports of the so-called “LPR” and “DPR”. According to the lawyers, some were forced to obtain such a passport at gunpoint. The first mobilization attempts occurred around the same time. Individuals with Ukrainian papers but without “republican” passports were eligible as well, as long as their official place of birth was within the Donetsk or the Luhansk region.

Individuals with Ukrainian papers but without “republican” passports are eligible for mobilization as well
“We advise against accepting Russian passports unless, of course, it is a matter of life and death – in this case, this status can be challenged later. We know of cases when civilians were taken hostage for their reluctance to accept passports.”

Murygina points out that the “LDPR” law does not even include the definition of citizenship, which means anyone at all can be drafted. The IV Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War explicitly bans the mobilization of persons from occupied territory by the occupant power and treats it as a war crime.

“A reference to relevant norms sometimes works. I’ve consulted a few men who reached out to us on how to write an appeal. It helped in a few cases because Russia does not want a scandal; the authorities do not appreciate being called war criminals. However, it didn't always work because lawlessness is ubiquitous in the occupied territories. Thus, individual districts of the Donetsk and the Luhansk regions have passed ‘laws’ on mobilization by age group but fail to observe them, grabbing all and sundry off streets regardless of age.”

The lawyers witnessed a drastic turn when Russia announced mobilization and annexed more Ukrainian land. The recruitment became even more indiscriminate, and mobilized soldiers have been sent to war without training. Notably, apart from Ukrainians in occupied territories, Russia is also mobilizing Uzbek and Tajik nationals. As Murygina exclaims, “unlike Ukrainians, they weren’t even offered passports.”

“Russian authorities promised to deport everyone who didn’t want to serve and simplify the citizenship application process for those willing to go to war.”

Like age limits, health restrictions are often dismissed; sometimes even Russian draftees are enlisted without a medical exam, let alone the residents of occupied territories.

Another challenge of living under occupation is the isolation caused by multiple factors including problems with Internet access. Many find themselves in an information vacuum, not knowing who to ask for help. According to Polina Murygina, human rights defenders recommend renouncing the Russian passport by citing the Russian law on citizenship, which grants foreign nationals the right, but not the obligation, to apply for Russian citizenship.

“Another norm enshrined in the federal law is the principle of choice of citizenship if the Russian state border changes. When people invoke this norm, it usually works: instead of triggering confrontation by saying that Russia’s new borders are illegitimate and they refuse to recognize them, they appeal to the free choice enshrined in Russian law. However, holders of Russian or LDPR passports may find it more difficult to appeal against a decision on their mobilization.”

To avoid being recruited, Every Human Being lawyers recommend hiding because alternative civil service during mobilization is not an option – contrary to the Russian Constitution. After turning up at the military enlistment office or a training exercise, escaping could be tricky.

“The ramping-up of consequences is also not to be ignored. Until you have received a draft notice or a mobilization prescription, you are safe. You can simply lay low somewhere they can’t find you. Although they are known to have snatched men off the streets. No one cares what recruitment category you are in and what passport you hold. Once you’ve been handed a draft notice, you face administrative liability, but if you’re charged with military shirking, it's a criminal offense. Not showing up at the military enlistment office or reservist training is punishable by up to two years in jail. Going AWOL from a training exercise (still better than staying in terms of survival) means facing stricter sanctions: up to ten years in prison for abandoning your military unit and up to 15 for desertion.”

Those who already have a Russian passport are advised “to keep a low profile and have someone do their shopping” until the situation is resolved. Renouncing Russian citizenship is also an option but a time-consuming one. Lawyers recommend staying in touch with human rights groups, many of which assist with evacuation. The wounded and women with children are evacuated to the EU. If leaving is not an option, the only thing you can do is hide.

“It's better to live in Ukraine under shellfire than become Russia's cannon fodder”

Among others, Every Human Being helped Oleg, a 30-year-old Ukrainian national who lived and worked in Russia without a Russian passport. In addition to running the risk of mobilization since September, Oleg lost his job because of his passport. His attempts to leave Russia failed because he couldn't even buy a bus or a train ticket with a Ukrainian passport.

“I was born in Horlivka [Donetsk Region]. I never applied for a Russian passport and have lived here with a residence permit. My decision to leave was caused by recent developments. Either I leave Russia, or I’ll die there. I see no point in living in this country anymore. It’s not that I ever saw it, but at least I had a job.”

Oleg's permit expired, and he failed to apply for its renewal. As a result, he couldn’t keep his job. He was fired and left without the means of existence. His only option was to apply for a Russian passport.

Oleg realized that becoming a Russian citizen considerably increased his risk of being sent to the war with Ukraine because employers have to submit lists of employees to military enlistment offices, and getting a military registration card is mandatory for employment.

“It meant I had to go and get my military registration card. There is no telling if they'd have let me out of the office. My cousin was told: ‘Since you're a Ukrainian national and served in their army, you can go for now.’ How long ‘for now’ will last, no one knows. Personally, I don't need a Russian passport. I’ve always lived here with a residence permit backed by my contract. So I decided to leave.”

His first thought was getting to Minsk by train or bus. However, when he tried buying train tickets, he got a notification about criminal liability for illegal border crossing. The cashier said she could sell him the ticket but that he wouldn’t be allowed to board the train. He didn't get a bus ticket either.

“I present my passport and ask for a ticket, but the cashier looks away, hesitant. I try reasoning with her, but she doesn’t respond. I went to Saint Petersburg, thinking I could get to Finland from there. When I arrived, I called a few bus companies and said I needed to get to the border. And they said: ‘We don't sell tickets to Ukrainian nationals. Border guards take too long to process you so we can’t take you on board because of the risk of getting stuck.’”
“I present my passport and ask for a ticket, but the cashier looks away, hesitant”

After that, Oleg was advised to try the land border with Estonia. His driver let him out at the checkpoint, reassuring him that “it’ll be alright”. The border guards took Oleg's belongings and phone, asked him to unlock it, took his fingerprints and photos, and questioned him.

“They asked: ‘Where did you live? What did you do for a living? Where did you work? How did you like it? What about your family? How do you feel about Russia’s policies?’ I decided to play it safe and said I wasn't free to talk about such things in my circumstances, having lost my job and my livelihood. I talked my way out of it. The border guards showed me a secret path and sent me on my way without any papers: ‘Go.’”

At the Estonian border, Oleg said he wanted to cross the border and request asylum. He explained he had no job or means of existence and that he was reluctant to obtain a Russian passport, let alone take up arms against his countrymen. Another search followed.

“One searched through my belongings, and the other was asking the same questions as his Russian counterparts. Then they showed me two documents in a language I don’t speak and said: ‘Sign here. You can’t pass. If you disagree, you may challenge this decision in court.’”

Oleg had to return to Russia. He reached out to Every Human Being, and the activists suggested leaving for Minsk. When crossing the Belarusian border, he left his details and wrote he was visiting his relatives. He was allowed entry but warned that he would not be able to return by the same route.

“The Federal Migration Service told me I could leave Russia whenever I wanted, but it wasn't true. No one can clarify anything, and no one knows anything – typical Russia. I’m happy I’ve gotten away from the mobilization and all that’s going on there. A girl I know had her boyfriend mobilized. She even bought him military equipment, which was yet another proof of the idiocy. I asked her: ‘You do realize he might not be coming back, don’t you?’ ‘Yeah. But we will pray and hope for the best.’ This is something I utterly fail to understand. I said: ‘Can you at least tell me what’s going on down there?’ ‘He’ll be sweeping for mines.’ ‘Does he have the skills?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, you’ll hardly see him again.’ All those people clinging to their hopes...”

Oleg is certain that he would have been drafted in Russia, despite the government's claims of having completed the mobilization.

“It's Russia, where everything can change overnight. And no one will ask questions, just bow their heads and go wherever they are told. I’m in Belarus now, but I won't stay long because it's no better than where I lived. I’ll try to make a life for myself in Europe. If I fail, I’ll go to Ukraine. I still have my Ukrainian passport. It’s better to live in Ukraine under shellfire than become Russia’s cannon fodder.”

“The mobilization could result in the implicit genocide of the Crimean Tatar population”

Forcible mobilization methods applied to Crimean Tatars have caused great concern among lawyers and human rights defenders. Draft notices are being served in public spaces, markets, and mosques during the Friday prayer, to school workers and healthcare professionals, and at checkpoints.

Polina Murygina reminds us that repressions against Crimean Tatars started as early as in 2014, when the practice of labeling them “terrorists” and “extremists” began. Since the war broke out, the Russian Financial Monitoring register has been featuring Ukrainians too, and Crimean Tatars had been on the radar long before that, which was a means of vanquishing any forms of public protest in occupied Crimea.

According to KrymSOS analysе Evgeny Yaroshenko, Russia’s illegal activities in Crimea began with the issuing of passports in 2014.

“Once Russia annexed Crimea, a directive was issued: unless the residents of the peninsula submit a written refusal to accept a Russian passport at a migration center, they become Russian citizens by default. Around 3,000 people benefited from this opportunity; time was scarce, and so were the migration centers. Many simply ignored the directive of the occupation authorities.”

Those who failed to show up at the migration centers became Russian nationals – in the eye of the Russian government. However, as far as Ukraine is concerned and under international law, they remain Ukrainians; their Russian citizenship was obtained illegally, and any authorities in occupied Crimea and their directives are illegitimate.

According to Yaroshenko, many Crimeans risk becoming the victims of war crimes as a result of the “partial mobilization”, considering that the official statistics suggest a much higher mobilization rate on the peninsula than in Russia itself.

“Crimea planned to mobilize one in 200 residents, while Russia looked to recruit only one in 500. Up to 90% of draft notices are issued to Crimean Tatars. They make up 13-15% of the Crimean population. They become war crime victims disproportionately often. If we consider the demographics of Crimean communities, very few have 50% or more Crimean Tatars. However, there is a fair share of communities where they account for 25-35% of the population. So the scale of their involvement in the mobilization effort raises serious concerns: it may result in the implicit genocide of the Crimean Tatar nation and its partial deportation. Thus, one military enlistment office issued 28 notices, of which only one was not to a Crimean Tatar.”
Crimea planned to mobilize one in 200 residents, while Russia looked to recruit only one in 500

In Crimea, it was open season for men in public spaces. Military enlistment officers came to mosques during the Friday prayer. In the Bakhchysarai, Dzhankoi, Simferopol, Sudak, and Bilohorsk districts, men were served their draft notices, put on buses, and taken to military enlistment offices.

Some had their doors knocked on at six in the morning. Heads of occupation village administrations were forced to deliver draft notices too, Evgeny Yaroshenko remarks.

He also points out there are ways of evading mobilizations, but each harbors risks. One of the options is to get “lost”. Eject your SIM card and stop using your phone.

Another important tip concerns Gosuslugi, the government services portal, where you should check the box about getting hard copies of notifications to avoid being sent a digital draft notice. The Gosuslugi app is worth removing altogether because the authorities may still use it to issue draft notices.

It's no less important to leave your place of residence and go stay with your friends or distant relatives elsewhere in Crimea or Russia. Going abroad is a smart choice. You could travel to Georgia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, or Turkey through Russia. There are risks too because Russia began issuing draft notices at the border on September 25, and some Russian passport holders were forbidden to leave.

As Yaroshenko points out, the most important thing is to avoid getting a draft notice or a call from your military enlistment office because a citizen is only obliged to show up at the enlistment office after signing the notice in person. Without the signature, there is no liability for military shirking.

“If occupation enforcers approach you in the street to serve a draft notice, it’s better to explain why you can't perform military duties right this moment instead of refusing to follow them. You could say you have a health condition and need to do a medical check-up or that you’ve recently contacted a COVID-19 patient and have to get tested. This is not a guarantee against mobilization but could buy you some time.”

Taking care of your health is also a good idea. You could screen yourself for conditions that make you unfit for military service. Thus, a 2013 directive on military medical examination lists the diseases that make men ineligible for mobilization.

Ukrainian citizens should remember that even if their papers are considered invalid (such as a Ukrainian domestic or travel passport), keeping them is a good idea because they could be important for getting temporary protection from third countries. Such countries need to be able to differentiate between Crimean residents with Russian and Ukrainian passports.

It’s important to make sure Crimeans’ relatives have copies of their Ukrainian papers; if such a soldier is captured, he will be treated differently because the Ukrainian military will be able to tell between a war crime victim and an occupant who can be exchanged for Ukrainian POWs.

As Yaroshenko believes, the specific number of mobilized Crimeans remains unknown. There is information, however, that a group of Crimeans has been sent to Sevastopol for training since mobilization was announced, and then to the front line outside Kherson. Some of the men mobilized in Krasnohvardiiske District have already been killed in action, with bodies returned to their families.

“If Kherson residents lay their hands on firearms, they'll overthrow the Russians”

As for Kherson, early October saw reports in Ukrainian media about Russia increasing the pace of forcible mobilization in the occupied cities of southern Ukraine. Men were reported to be grabbed off the streets.

However, as Kherson resident Ivan shared with The Insider, he saw nothing of the sort. He believes Russia can only mobilize its supporters who already have Russian passports. Meanwhile, Kherson residents have been increasingly hostile toward Russia since the war began. Furthermore, the city does not have the capacity to process large population groups. Ivan is sure that, while the rumors about mobilization may have been initiated by the Russians themselves, in reality, they are unlikely to take such steps.

“If you give Kherson residents assault rifles, they’ll overthrow the Russians. Besides, a guerrilla movement is stable and active throughout the city. Over the months, we’ve been getting reports of police cars shot at, a bomb placed in a collaborator's apartment, and so on. No one knows who is behind these acts, but they are not one-off incidents. Arming Kherson residents could be biting off more than Russia can chew.”

He also says the Russian authorities are trying to appease the locals and win their support. They like to appeal to their difference from the “Nazi Ukraine”:

“They’ve come and saved everyone from their jobs, salaries, and cell coverage, and now they’re telling us what a good life we’ll have. Naturally, everyone hates them. Before the war, Kherson residents saw Russians as a fraternal nation. When the war began, all affection was gone.”

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