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World

Russian Conscripts May Be Part Of Fighting Force In Ukraine

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Since those protests in the Maidan, nearly 6,000 people have been killed in fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists. The story is that these separatists are mostly from Ukraine or that if they are from Russia, they're volunteers - sometimes soldiers who go to Ukraine on their own time, like while they're on vacation. Russia denies it sends active-duty soldiers into Ukraine. But Laura Mills of the Associated Press has found a different version of that story. She joins us now from Moscow. Welcome.

LAURA MILLS: Thank you.

MCEVERS: And first, can you explain how the Russian military works? I know that every Russian is required to serve one year in the military, right? Then what?

MILLS: So after a year of mandatory service, you can then become a professional soldier in order to keep fighting. And then you sign up for contract, kind of like in the U.S. - anywhere from three to five years.

MCEVERS: So it's a contract that you sign and that means you're going to continue being in the military. Now how does it work if you're going to go serve abroad? You have to be under one of these contracts, right?

MILLS: Exactly. Conscripts, or these young recruits who are doing their mandatory year of service, legally aren't allowed to serve overseas, whereas in order to serve in any foreign conflicts, you have to have signed a contract with the Russian military.

MCEVERS: So you interviewed a 20-year-old guy named Alexander. He had just finished his first year of mandatory service. Tell us what happened after that.

MILLS: Alexander was about to wrap up his year of mandatory service in October. He's based in a military town near Moscow. And he was just out at the shooting range one day and a commander drove up and said, everybody back to the base. Then they get back to the base and the commander told them - you guys have to go on a trip. He said, ah, it's just a month. Don't worry about it. You'll be going down to Rostov.

MCEVERS: This is a part of southern Russian that borders Ukraine.

MILLS: Yes, and what many activists believe is a sort of springboard for sending troops into east Ukraine - but, you know, Alexander said he had no intention of extending his military service. But he ultimately came back to his commander - he said I don't think that I want to do it. The commander said, well, tough luck. You said that you might go on this trip, so now you're going. And then, basically, when he got sent down to Rostov, he had different commanders there who said they have this piece of paper here saying that you agreed to sing up for the long-term. And you're here for the long haul, whether you like it or not. And if you want to run away, we'll try you for absence without leave, which in Russia carries up to five years in prison. So obviously, a young guy like this who's been intimidated into taking this trip in the first place - he gets really scared. And he ended up staying there basically from the middle of October until the new year. And then he ran away.

MCEVERS: And he's back home now. He so far hasn't been punished by the military. He ended up not going to fight in Ukraine. But some other soldiers did end up going to fight Ukraine. Can you tell us about them?

MILLS: Yeah. Specifically, we spoke to one mother. She lives in Moscow. Her son was serving in a base also not far from Moscow and he was also a recruit. And in the summer she got a text message from him saying, I've arrived in Rostov, which is this region near Ukraine, for military exercises. That was at the end of July. And then she didn't hear from him for about a month.

She was totally desperate, got together with other mothers who had the same problem and couldn't get in touch with their sons. And then finally, when her son reappeared, he confessed to her that he'd actually gone across the border into east Ukraine. He's also a conscript. He said he was forced to sign a document saying that he agreed to cross the border, but there wasn't even a date written in there with the terms of his assignment or the length of his assignment.

And she went to the local recruitment office and said, why have you sent my son who's not legally even supposed to be sent anywhere outside of Russia across the border? And they said, you're making things up. There are no troops in east Ukraine. And that's the only answer to this day that she's had from them.

MCEVERS: So the implication here is that they want some sort of legal cover should it be discovered that some of these soldiers are actually going to Ukraine - that they were going there legally because they signed a contract. But why is this being kept so secret?

MILLS: Because an invasion of east Ukraine, if it were to mean a lot of casualties, would probably not be very popular with the Russian population. There was a recent survey that said that after economic problems, a third of Russians are really terrified of the possibility that their country could be dragged into a war. And it's clear that the government is worried about what the possible consequences of people finding out how many people are dying there could be.

MCEVERS: That's Laura Mills of the Associated Press. She joined us from her base in Moscow. Laura, thank you so much.

MILLS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.