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Russian recruit tells of shortages, chaos and futility of war in Ukraine

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Russian recruits. Photo: AP/Dmitri Lovetsky

Russian recruits. Photo: AP/Dmitri Lovetsky

Russian recruits. Photo: AP/Dmitri Lovetsky

Anatoly could have avoided Russia’s military draft. On the eve of his call-up, the mechanic received a phone call from a local doctor looking to get his tyres changed for the coming winter.

When Anatoly explained he had received a military draft notice, the doctor offered to give him a fake diagnosis for a deferral – Anatoly turned him down.

Instead, he dutifully attended the recruitment office in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.

Now, in the first interview with a newly mobilised Russian soldier to appear in the Western media, Anatoly tells of the chaos behind Moscow’s efforts to rush men into battle and prop up their fast collapsing front lines in Ukraine.

“There were about 40 people inside [the recruitment office]: half of them drunk or not in a great shape,” Anatoly, who did not want to use his real name, told The Telegraph by phone.

“There were also older men who clutched at files with medical records – hoping to dodge it, I guess. The recruiter asked me how I felt and if I had any complaints. I said I’m fine.”

He was met by an officer who warned him that he was going to have to buy most of his equipment himself. He said he was told: “Take everything with you, even cooking utensils, a sleeping bag. If the family can bring a mattress to the training centre – great.”

Images of mobilised Russian men sleeping on the floor at bare barracks, or relatives handing bags of groceries over the fence to a base hosting new recruits have flooded on to social media. In some instances, the chaos appears to have led to violence. At a military unit outside Moscow, contract soldiers tried to steal phones and other possessions from mobilised men who fought back and beat them up.

Police were eventually sent in to break up the brawl that involved more than 20 men.

The mobilisation that was announced two weeks ago turned the war, glorified by state television, into a reality for almost every Russian family. Anatoly offered a somewhat contradictory mix of explanations for why he didn’t resist joining the army, despite having a very sober view about the futility of the attack on Ukraine.

The mechanic had already done 12 months of compulsory military service in 2015-16, learning to become a sniper.

As the profile picture for his WhatsApp account, Anatoly had an iconic Second World War-era Soviet poster reading: “Motherland is calling you.”

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He knew full well what the mobilisation meant for him: “As soon as I heard about it I knew I would be pretty much the first on the list.”

He made the most of his last day before deployment. Between errands and last-minute shopping, Anatoly proposed to his long-time girlfriend and they got married the same afternoon.

He reasoned that running away from the draft would change nothing. “What’s going to happen if everyone flees? Then this [war] will never end,” he said, carefully avoiding the word for “war” – now forbidden in Russia.

“It doesn’t even matter how I feel about it: we’re hostages of this situation,” he said. “I wasn’t the one who got us into this mess, but maybe I can help? If I sit at home, it would be even worse.”

He is clear-eyed both about the Ukrainians’ hostility towards Russia – “our people would do the same if foreign troops were walking in our streets” – and shares no enthusiasm about last week’s annexations: “We’re going to end up subsidising those regions. So the idea was to just go and smash it all to pieces and then spend our own money rebuilding it?”

The morning after he spoke, Anatoly took a bus to the Novosibirsk Military Command College – the same place that was reported to be overcrowded and lacking basic necessities. Videos that emerged last weekend showed several rows of army tents pitched in a clearing in the forest as dozens of men in winter camouflage jackets carried firewood in the rain.

When we checked back on Anatoly after his call-up, he had changed his WhatsApp profile photo to one of him in camouflage. He did not answer the phone or reply to any more messages. 

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]


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