Thousands of new recruits are expected to enlist in the Russian military this year, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. By the end of 2020, some 263,000 personnel will have been drafted into the million-strong Russian military.
Drafting of new conscripts was suspended for about six weeks during the first wave of the pandemic in the spring. As a result, 135,000 young men had to be examined by doctors and assigned to their posts in just two months, instead of the usual three and a half months.
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“The fact that the enlistment plans weren’t curtailed back then led to serious problems in the spring – and it will happen again now,” said Alexander Gorbachev, a lawyer for the human rights organization The mothers of the St. Petersburg soldiers.
The non-governmental organization has received numerous complaints of violations at the enlistment offices, most of them relating to neglected hygiene rules and pandemic guidelines. There are also indications that the rights of conscripts have been violated.
The Defense Ministry releases daily figures on how many members of the military have been infected with COVID-19 and how many have recovered. About 4,500 cases have been reported since March. According to the Department of Defense, that figure has increased by about 260 infections per day over the past 10 days.
Complaints against enlistment offices
Ivan *, 25, was among those who turned to the mothers of soldiers in St. Petersburg for help. He has suffered from cardiovascular problems and fainting episodes for years and has been called repeatedly to enlistment offices for medical examinations. At every appointment, he explained his state of health, only for recruiting officers to tell him that he should return until he was 27.
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On his last visit last summer, Ivan had to take a psychological test. The military doctor certified that he suffered from a “cognitive disorder” and explained that no one could join the army “with such a result”.
“Nonetheless, they called me a few days later and told me I was in good shape and needed to report to work,” Ivan said. He challenged the decision in court; the matter remains to be determined.
Is the military using the pandemic to violate the rights of conscripts?
Anna * comes from the St. Petersburg suburb of Vsevolozhsk. She was not allowed to enter the enlistment office as a representative for her son due to the coronavirus restrictions in place. At the same time, however, according to Anna, the young men showing up for service at the office were “piled up like sardines.”
Anna is concerned that the enlistment offices may use the pandemic to restrict the rights of conscripts. She fears that in her absence, office workers could “accidentally lose” her son’s original medical records indicating that he did not have to complete military service.
According to Gorbachev, it is especially in the big cities that the authorities have used this kind of trick. “It is important to know that in many parts of Russia, young people are enthusiastic about joining the army,” he said, adding that young people in Moscow and St. Petersburg are generally more aware of their legal rights.
Military conscripts underwent medical examinations at crowded enlistment offices
More work for doctors, cleaners
For some conscripts, the pandemic has made military service a little easier, said political activist Pavel Krisevich. He was drafted into the military in 2019 and ended his service in the spring, amid the first wave of the pandemic.
“Most sporting events usually take place in the months of April and May, and I worked in an army sports unit. But because of the coronavirus, everything was canceled and we soldiers were all allowed to sleep on weekends, ”he said.
However, Krisevich said, companies responsible for medical care and chemical disinfection have more to do. Among their increased tasks: performing temperature checks of their colleagues, looking after field hospitals and cleaning surfaces coated with protective equipment.
But in the opinion of the mothers of the St. Petersburg soldiers, the measures taken by the Russian military to curb the spread of COVID-19 are both inadequate and ineffective. In a recently released report on the spring recruiting process, the advocacy group recommended reducing the total number of conscripts and reducing enlistments during the pandemic.
* Names have been changed
This article was translated from German.