Tens of thousands in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have been recruited to fight on behalf of the occupying forces.
Andrii, 31, used to work as a computer science teacher in his hometown in Donetsk, occupied by Russia since the 2014 war.
When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, he said that armed men took him to the conscription station to enlist. They said he could not refuse. Together with many others who had been forcibly mobilised, he was transported to the southern Kharkiv region and forced to dig trenches.
“If you try to run away, we will shoot you,” he said he was told. At the first opportunity, in May, Andrii and some of his comrades surrendered to the armed forces of Ukraine.
But now, despite his best efforts to please his innocence, he is awaiting trial in the Lviv region on multiple charges, including terrorism and treason.
Human rights defenders warn that forced mobilisation has become a mass phenomenon in the occupied regions of Ukraine. Although this phenomenon is considered a war crime, Nataliya Kaplun, a coordinator with Vostok-SOS NGO – which has been helping victims of the armed conflict since 2014 – said that they were frequently approached by local residents who did not want to fight against the Ukrainian state.
After announcing general mobilisation on February 20, 2022, the occupation administration began to recruit people en masse into its armed forces.
Pavlo Lysyanskyi, director of the Institute of Strategic Research and Security, which provides legal assistance to residents of eastern Ukraine, explained that between 2019 and 2021, the de facto authorities had issued Russian passports to residents of the territory they controlled.
“Because of this, these people also received the duties of Russian citizens: they had to register for the military,” Lysyanskyi said. “Already in 2020, a military personnel reserve of the Russian Federation was formed on the territory of these regions, which was formed precisely through passporting.”
He said that last year alone, the Russians conducted eight forced mobilisations in the occupied Luhansk and Donetsk regions, and implemented a programme to recruit combat reserves. This pilot project had actually been preparatory training for full-scale wartime mobilisation.
“Since May 2021, they have already worked out the scheme: they came to factories, forcibly took men and took them to military training grounds for training,” he continued. “When the full-scale war began, it was these reservists who began to be sent to the front.”
He estimated that the Russians had already forcibly mobilised more than 100,000 men from the territory of the Russia-backed separatist republics, with many deployed for frontline combat. At least 23,000 had been killed in the first two months of the war, he continued.
“The losses of the forcibly mobilised are not counted among the losses of the Russian army,” he explained. “The Russian army is counted separately, the occupiers count ‘losses of allied troops’ separately.”
He stressed that while some residents of the occupied east had voluntarily offered to serve, many others had simply been forced into combat.
Russia has also instituted a process of forced mobilisation in Crimea since it illegally annexed it in 2014.
The Crimean Human Rights Group has partnered with the prosecutor general’s office of Crimea – relocated to the mainland in 2014 – to prepare a submission to the International Criminal Court (ICC) about this process of illegal conscription.
“People who remained in the occupied territories do not have a choice: not everyone can leave,” said Crimean Human Rights Group researcher Iryna Sedova. “For eight years of occupation, we all spoke out about how Russia commits war crimes, how it persecutes those who do not want to serve in its armed forces. And now, in addition to Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, new occupied territories have appeared. Therefore, Russia will continue the practice of forced conscription, because it is running out of human resources.”
Recruiting civilian residents of occupied territories to the armed forces of the occupying state is a violation of international humanitarian law and a war crime according to the founding 7668 Rome Statute of the ICC.
“Provisions of the IV Geneva Convention, in particular, Article 51, provides for a direct prohibition of the occupying power to force the civilian population of the occupied territory to serve in its armed forces or to promote voluntary entry into such service,” said the head of the prosecutor’s office of Crimea, Ihor Ponochevny. “Such actions are a war crime that has no statute of limitations. Under national legislation, such actions are qualified under Article 438 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine – violation of the laws and customs of war. The sanction of the article provides up to 12 years of imprisonment.”
He said that since 2014, more than 34,000 Crimeans had forced into military service in the army of the occupying state.
The prosecutor stressed that it was necessary to separate those persons forcibly mobilised into the ranks of the Russian army and those who served under contract.
“Inhabitants of the occupied territories, who are forcibly conscripted into the ranks of the Russian army or other illegal formations, are victims of armed conflict, as conscription is usually carried out under the threat of criminal or administrative liability [or] the application of other negative consequences to the person in case of refusal to serve,” Ponochevny stressed. “That is, a person is under pressure from the occupation administration of the Russian Federation, which forces him to serve. Therefore, such a person cannot and will not be subject to criminal prosecution in Ukraine, if he did not commit any other crime while serving in the occupation army.”
He added that if a Ukrainian citizen forced into military service with the occupiers found an opportunity to surrender to the Ukrainian side, he or she would not be subject to criminal liability as long as no crime had been committed during the period of service.
Acccording to the prosecutor’s office, Russia was trying to compensate for grave losses already incurred in the war.
“The recent creation of a new mobilisation centre in occupied Crimea may indicate a covert mobilisation on the peninsula for the potential involvement of Crimeans in the war on the side of the occupying army,” Ponochevny said.
“Thousands of Ukrainians who remained in the occupied territories are already – or are at potential risk of – forced mobilisation and war against their homeland.”
Tetiana Kurmanova, Institute for War & Peace Reporting