Russian army refuseniks hide in fear to evade Ukraine conflict

After Putin ordered a mass call-up of reservists, some fled the country; those who couldn’t are still trying to dodge authorities inside Russia

Hiding Russian army reservist Dmitry, whose name has been changed for security reasons, shows his army booklet during an AFP interview at an undisclosed location in Russia in 2023.  (Romain COLAS / AFP)
Hiding Russian army reservist Dmitry, whose name has been changed for security reasons, shows his army booklet during an AFP interview at an undisclosed location in Russia in 2023. (Romain COLAS / AFP)

UNDISCLOSED LOCATION, Russia (AFP) — The documents issued to Dmitry by the Russian military carry an ominous hand-written designation: “Category One. State of Health B.”

It means he has been given a clean bill of health and should be in Ukraine, fighting on the front lines of Moscow’s fierce and bloody year-long offensive.

But the Russian in his 20s — wearing a hoodie and holding the army papers in his hands — is nowhere near the battles for Ukraine’s industrial east.

Instead, he is hiding from the authorities, trapped in his own country, and living in fear of being punished for refusing to fight and his stance on the conflict.

“Taking part in this disgrace marks you for life,” he said, describing Russia’s intervention in Ukraine as “barbaric” and “criminal.”

Dmitry, whose name has been changed for security reasons and who spoke to AFP at an undisclosed location in Russia, was among at least 300,000 reservists called up last year.

Russian army soldiers practice on a military training ground in Russian-controlled Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, January 31, 2023. (Alexei Alexandrov/AP)

When President Vladimir Putin announced the mobilization drive on state television in late September, it sparked a frantic exodus of military-aged men from the country.

Some, who didn’t want to leave the country or didn’t have the means, claimed exemptions on medical or professional grounds.

Others like Dmitry — and nobody knows the exact figure — just ignored the orders.

‘Ignored it’

In the months since, they have relied on luck, cunning or bureaucratic loopholes to avoid a raft of new punitive legislation that could land them in prison for evading the draft.

For Dmitry, who previously trained with Russia’s elite paratroopers as part of his mandatory military service, it was perhaps a combination of all three.

His mobilization order came at the end of September, days after Putin’s announcement.

But it was delivered to his old residence in a region where he no longer lives. He showed AFP the former address written on his government-issued identity documents.

“A utilities company tried to deliver the papers to me. But… I hadn’t been there for more than three months,” he told AFP.

He said local authorities should have removed him from the military register in that region. The fact that they didn’t gave him an easy out.

“I simply ignored it,” he said.

Among his social circle, eight have been mobilized, he said. Some secured last-minute exemptions. Others went to fight.

Nearly five months since, he is on alert, careful not to disclose his whereabouts accidentally to authorities.

Hiding Russian army reservist Dmitry, whose name has been changed for security reasons, speaks during an AFP interview at an undisclosed location in Russia in 2023. (Romain COLAS / AFP)

‘Digital hygiene’

He only travels within the administrative borders of the region where he lives and works remotely for an IT company based abroad.

Dmitry also follows protocols of “strict digital hygiene” employing IT tools that mask the location of his telephone and computer.

He also avoids the surveillance cameras in his city that he knows to be equipped with facial recognition software and which have been used by law enforcement to scoop up other draft dodgers.

“Either you stay in the wilderness — the country is big and there are lots of places — or do the opposite, get lost in some big city,” Dmitry explained.

But whatever measures you take to avoid detection from police and military personnel, it’s impossible to escape the anxiety of being caught.

Another young Russian, in hiding after being called up, canceled an interview with AFP at the last minute, fearing that meeting journalists would attract police attention.

As time drags on, Dmitry’s fraught position looks increasingly precarious.

Dmitry chose to remain in Russia to be close to his loved ones — especially his partner and her child.

Leaving now looks far more dangerous since Russian security services have drawn up lists of mobilized people for cross-checking at the country’s borders.

In this handout photo taken from video and released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Friday, January 13, 2023, Russian soldiers prepare a mortar in the direction of Ugledar at an undisclosed location in Ukraine. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

‘Rather go to prison’

Adding to his worries are the rumors of a possible second call-up wave and announcements that military recruitment offices are digitizing.

As the political climate in Russia becomes increasingly suspicious of dissent, he is also scared of being denounced.

The stakes are high. If arrested, Dmitry could be handed prison time for insubordination.

But, Dmitry said, the choice is clear.

“If I can’t resist the state, I’d rather go to prison,” he said.

The outbreak of fighting that spurred Putin’s mobilization orders was a double blow for Dmitry, bringing fear but also regret.

That’s because he has extended family in Ukraine — including some now living in territory controlled by Russia — whom he has never met.

“It’s a cliche but I always dreamed of going to Kyiv and Odesa to meet my relatives and to talk to them.”

“It’s been shattered by one person,” he said.

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