Russian lawmakers on Tuesday voted to enforce an electronic draft system that would make it nearly impossible for men to avoid conscription, the latest sign that Moscow is preparing to boost a military struggling under Kyiv’s fierce counterattack.
The new system comes ahead of Ukraine's widely anticipated spring offensive.
Currently, Russian men have to be served with paper conscription notices, delivered in-person at a registered address or place of work. Some 300,000 men were recruited to fight in Ukraine last year. Russia has not said how many more men it might be seeking to mobilize.
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According to the law, men would be barred from leaving the country from the day they receive the summons and until they appear at a military recruitment office. Those who fail to show up within 20 days will face a number of restrictions, including a ban on driving vehicles, selling and buying real estate and obtaining bank loans.
The new rules, which could be enforced as early as this week and apply to both draftees and reservists, mean that a conscription notice will be considered delivered and legally valid as soon as it lands in one’s account on Russia’s state portal for electronic services.
The “Gosuslugi” portal is widely used by Russians for online public services, such as registering births, paying fines and booking doctor appointments, so avoiding it to dodge the draft would be very difficult.
The changes appear to give the Kremlin a much more streamlined system that would enable a more thorough conscription effort, closing loopholes that have helped thousands dodge the draft.
In an unpopular move, President Vladimir Putin first announced partial mobilization as his forces struggled in Ukraine last September, resulting in a mass exodus of Russian men and a wave of protests across the country.
There were no official estimates of how many men may have fled, but many among those who did not leave the country and were unwilling to fight hid from authorities.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu vowed on Oct. 28 that no more would be mobilized in the near future.
The Kremlin has tried to downplay any fears of a new wave of conscriptions.
Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday that the legislation changes are part of a wider effort to modernize an outdated call-up system, and do not mean a new mobilization effort is on the horizon.
The swiftly-introduced draft changes show that regular Russians are being sucked into the conflict, said Michael Horowitz, an Israel-based analyst and the head of intelligence at Le Beck risk management consultancy.
“The Russian population has been looking for a space to ignore the war, and these measures mean that this space is shrinking fast," Horowitz said.
Russian social media, meanwhile, has been abuzz with discussions of the draft system changes. A number of lawyers started sharing legal advice on what rights men still have under the new legislation, with some suggesting leaving the country before the new rules are enacted may be the only real way not to get drafted.
The new legislation was given the green light by Russia’s upper house of parliament Wednesday, Russian state news agency Tass reported, and now only needs Putin’s signature to take effect.
The Russian war stalled after the invasion in February last year. For months, Russians have been battling Ukrainian forces in the eastern city of Bakhmut, which has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance and has resulted in huge estimated losses on both sides.
Russian defense officials has been keeping quiet about the country’s war death toll, but Western officials have suggested it could be in tens of thousands.
Although the head of Russia’s mercenary group Wagner had claimed on several occasions that Russia controls much of the city, Ukrainians continue to fight, leaving Moscow struggling to claim its first military victory in many months.
The reality on the front lines is that Russia needs more manpower, given recent losses and an impending Ukrainian counteroffensive, said Christopher Tuck, an expert in conflict and security at King’s College London.
Moscow's key objective is to prepare defensive positions and staff them properly, Tuck said, to face off with Ukraine's modernized and Western-trained army.
“If they can contain, wear down, and defeat those forces, the Kremlin will hope that they are in a better position to win a longer-term war of attrition, wearing down Ukraine’s capability and willingness to continue the struggle,” he added.