Marah Frech, 08.10.2023
In Russia, military service is compulsory for all persons who are assigned male at birth. Since we want to point out that this also includes persons who are not male or do not identify as such, we use gender-neutral language.
Military Service and Conscientious Objection
Military service is compulsory for citizens assigned male at birth in Russia. Since the war in Ukraine, the relevant military laws have been amended several times: Compulsory military service has been extended and now applies to all citizens assigned male at birth between the ages of 18 and 30. In addition, reservists and former contract soldiers can also be called up for war; for them, an age limit of 65 years has been applied since May 2022. Citizens assigned female at birth are being recruited, but have so far been exempted from these regulations, as they are not subjected to military service in Russia. If they work in “war-related” professions, such as the medical sector, they can be recruited. These regulations, however, can change at any time during the war so that it cannot be ruled out that a larger group of people will be recruited and exemptions such as deferments will be lifted. The introduction of compulsory military service for all citizens is also conceivable.
In the Russian Federation, the right to conscientious objection exists, so any person can theoretically apply for conscientious objection. However, an application for conscientious objection is only possible until conscription; there is no right to conscientious objection for reservists and former soldiers. An amendment to the military law has made it possible to use alternative service conscripts in the military, too. In the separatist regions, conscription is forced and conscientious objectors are either sent to the front or imprisoned. The right to conscientious objection does not apply to them.
Legal and Social Consequences of Conscientious Objection
Anyone who resists conscription and does not join the military faces a punishment of several years of imprisonment. Desertion, especially during wartime, is prosecuted even more severely. In addition, draft evaders – should they manage to avoid conscription – are threatened with “civilian death”: Employers, for example, are obliged to report the status of military service of employees and are punished for hiring draft evaders. In addition, draft evaders are, among other things, denied a foreign passport and are not allowed to obtain a driver’s license.
According to Mediazona, the number of criminal investigations against conscientious objectors by Russian military courts doubled in 2023 compared to 2022: the courts currently hand down around 100 verdicts per week, with an upward trend. In the first half of 2023 alone, 2,076 cases of Russian soldiers who went absent without leave (AWOL) were heard in court (Art. 337 paragraph 5), mainly against mobilized soldiers. Since October 2022, this has been prosecuted as a crime during mobilization and thus punished more severely than in times of peace. In slightly more than half of the AWOL cases, sentences are suspended. This allows convicted soldiers to be sent to war (again). In addition, the risk for the soldiers increases: They become more dependent on officers, as they can report them at any time – and in case of renewed “misconduct” the suspended sentence would turn into an actual prison sentence.
In mid-September 2023, Russian soldier Madina Kabaloyeva was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment by the military court of the Vladikavkaz garrison for failing to report back to the military authorities during mobilization – despite an exemption from service issued by the medical department of her military unit due to her pregnancy. The execution of the sentence was postponed until 2032 because Madina Kabaloyeva has minor children. The appeal against the sentence was unsuccessful. Around the same time, 21-year-old contract soldier Maksim Aleksandrovich Kochetkov was sentenced to 13 years in a maximum-security prison by a military court in Sakhalin for refusing to fight in Ukraine and leaving his unit without permission to do so.
Partial Mobilization & Recruitment
The Russian war of aggression in Ukraine began in February 2022, followed by the partial mobilization of the Russian population only seven months later. Since September 2022, thousands of Russian citizens have fled.
As a result, recruitment attempts through raids have occurred more often. In addition, the enlistment age has been extended, withdrawal penalties have been increased and more military prisons have been built. Meanwhile, a digital draft notice is considered delivered immediately after it is sent, whereas previously official, hand-delivered, letters were required by law for registration, medical examination, and enlistment, meaning the person subjected to military service had to acknowledge the receipt with a signature. The Russian Federation started the war as a so-called “special operation” and claimed that no military conscripts would be deployed in Ukraine, only contract soldiers. In the meantime, however, numerous examples indicate that military conscripts were coerced into signing military contracts and were sent to Ukraine. We have also received reports of the Russian military falsifying contracts.
There are several exceptions for recruitment in Russia, such as the possibility of deferment, which is frequently practiced through corruption, too. There is the possibility of being deferred for training or study.
For more information on the legal situation in Russia, see this report by the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) and the 2022/23 Annual Report of the European Bureau for Conscientious Objection (EBCO).
We know that thousands of military conscripts have fled Russia, even though they represent a less politicized group. It is not possible to obtain accurate figures on desertion, conscientious objection, and military draft evasion. In addition, the movements of refugees are influenced by the political climate and restrictions against opposition figures, which have been tightened significantly. Many people protested against the war in the streets or on social media at the beginning of the war and were persecuted by the police and security authorities for doing so. Therefore, they are also among the Russian refugees. So are employees of international companies whose business activities have been restricted or sanctioned in the Russian Federation. For citizens assigned male at birth between the ages of 18 and 65, it is also true that, as military conscripts, they are always potential recruits, even if this is not the original reason for fleeing.
According to one estimate, at least 150,000 military conscripts had fled by September 2022, and these numbers have since increased significantly. In July 2023, the oppositional Russian Network for Analysis and Policy RE: Russia published a study on flights from Russia in the period from February 24, 2022, to July 2023, according to which between 820,000 and 920,000 people left Russia. The vast majority of refugees have so far left the country via southern Russia, including around 150,000 to Kazakhstan, 150,000 to Serbia, 110,000 to Armenia, between 65,000 and 85,000 to Montenegro, and up to 100,000 to Turkey. Israel is also one of the destination countries; according to the Israeli Population and Migration Authority, between February 2022 and February 2023, about 50,900 Jewish Russian citizens entered Israel, another 13,000 families (about 30,000 people) are waiting for status, and about 75,000 Russians have already received Israeli citizenship.
Including the exemptions and the possibility of deferral, we assume for the period February 2022 to July 2023 that a total of at least 250,000 people left Russia to avoid possible recruitment for the war. That is about 30% of all people who left Russia.
In addition, Eurostat published figures on asylum applications in the 27 countries of the European Union. According to these figures, 21,790 Russian nationals applied for asylum in the EU in the period between February 2022 and April 2023, which is only 2.65% of all those who fled. Among them, there are 9,580 applications from citizens assigned male at birth aged between 18 and 64. This corresponds to about 44% of all asylum applicants in this period.
Asylum in Germany
At the beginning of the war, politicians from various political factions declared that they would offer protection to Russian conscientious objectors and deserters, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in September 2022. However, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), which is responsible for assessing asylum applications, is rejecting asylum applications from Russian conscientious objectors by the dozen. At the end of January 2023, for example, the asylum application of a Russian conscientious objector who had evaded possible recruitment was rejected. The BAMF explained this decision by stating that “it cannot be assumed with a considerable probability that the applicant would be forcibly conscripted into the armed forces against his will”. This statement does not reflect the reality in light of the recruitment attempts mentioned above nor the reports we have received.
The jurisdiction recognizes conscientious objection and desertion as worthy of protection in only two cases: If a) the persecution of affected persons is considered a political act or b) there is “excessive punishment.” However, this still does not apply to military draftees, because there is a lack of proof of the likelihood of being recruited for a war that violates international law. Refugee protection in Germany is only conceivable for those who can prove conscription or desertion.
Nonetheless, a positive decision can be possible for military draftees if they are politically active in Russia – and can prove it – and are therefore threatened with political persecution. In addition, residence permits can be granted unbureaucratically in specific cases, e.g. for family reunification or study, training, and employment purposes. As a rule, these residence titles must be applied for before entry. After the suspension of the visa facilitation agreement between the European Union and the Russian Federation, Lower Saxony and Thuringia introduced this possibility for Russian citizens in the spring of 2022, other federal states have not yet done so.
Humanitarian visas only play a marginal role at the moment. A “Kleine Anfrage” from the Left Party in the German parliament shows that 679 humanitarian visas have been issued to Russians so far (as of January 13, 2023).
It must also be noted that numerous asylum applications are rejected based on the Dublin III Regulation. This states that those seeking protection must apply for asylum in the EU member state in which they entered the EU; otherwise, they will be sent back there. Thus, it is only in rare cases that the Federal Republic of Germany is responsible for the asylum application.