Russian conscripts fear Ukraine deployment: activists
Russian conscripts are coming under new pressure to sign up as professional soldiers and fear being dispatched to fight in Ukraine alongside Moscow-backed separatists, rights activists said Monday.
Activists sounded the alarm after a new spike in complaints from recruits doing compulsory military service and their families, as peace talks have broken down and fresh fighting is erupting in eastern Ukraine.
Activists and family members fear that once the conscripts sign up to become professional soldiers, they could be sent to eastern Ukraine where fighting has killed more than 5,000 since April.
Ella Polyakova, head of the Soldiers` Mothers of Saint Petersburg, said her group, which campaigns against abuses in the army, had received some two dozen complaints since December.
According to the complaints, most of them anonymous, once conscripts sign contracts to become professional soldiers, they risk being sent to take part in drills in the southern Rostov region, on the border with Ukraine.
"People are very afraid," Polyakova told AFP. "They don`t say directly what they are afraid of but their fear is obvious."
Among those who have come under pressure to sign contracts are soldiers serving in Siberia, Saint Petersburg, the northern Murmansk region and Nizhny Novgorod in central Russia.Alexei Usharev, whose 20-year-old son serves in motorised rifle troops, is among the concerned parents who have turned to Polyakova`s group.
In December, his son and fellow conscripts serving outside Saint Petersburg were told to sign a contract to become professional soldiers so that they could go on three-month drills in the Rostov region, said Usharev.
"They were assembled in a hall and given papers," he told AFP. He quoted his son as saying: "Everyone signed, and I signed."
"He yielded to mob mentality," Usharev said of his son, stressing he did not want him to sign the contract because he may be deployed to Ukraine.
"In 10 days they are going to the Rostov region."
Sergei Krivenko, head of Citizen and the Army, said his Moscow-based group had received some 10 similar complaints since November.
He said that there is no presidential decree on the deployment of troops abroad, meaning it is illegal to send both conscripts and professional soldiers across the border.
However draftees are better able to refuse to perform an illegal order than career soldiers, Krivenko said.
The Kremlin insists it is not a party to the conflict and denies Russian troops are on the ground in eastern Ukraine.
Irina Paikacheva, a Murmansk-based activist working with servicemen and their families, said contract soldiers serving in the region were being prepared to be dispatched on a mission, apparently to the border with Ukraine "and further."President Vladimir Putin said in December that any Russians fighting in Ukraine had gone there as volunteers "following the call of the heart."
Activists complain their attempts to get the authorities to probe soldiers` deaths have been stonewalled.
The defence ministry declined comment.
Some observers say Russian society is now more polarised than at any time in the country`s post-Soviet history.
Polls show that Russians are increasingly concerned with the effects of the economic crisis and growing instability next door.
According to a new study by state-controlled pollster VTsIOM, more than a quarter of Russians (26 percent) said fighting between Russia and Ukraine was possible, up from 17 percent last October.
Fifty four percent said a war between Russia and Ukraine was either unlikely or impossible, down from 70 percent last October. Ten percent said the war was already under way.