More than 220,000 Russian reservists have been drafted to fight in Ukraine since Putin’s declaration of “partial mobilization.” But many are refusing to fight, including Mikhail Ashichev, a 34-year-old mechanic from the town of Podporozhye.
In a widely circulated video shot five hundred miles from Moscow, Russian officials are shown meeting in a military draft office to talk to Ashichev about his opposition to being sent to the front lines in Ukraine.
“I’m not a pacifist. If a country was trying to occupy my Motherland, or commit aggression against Russia, I would go straight to the military enlistment office and sign up, without waiting for my call-up papers,” Ashichev tells the group of officials. “But in this particular case I believe that there is no military threat to my Motherland.”
Sternly rebuking him, one of the officials replies that “our Motherland is in danger,” to which Ashichev responds, “My Motherland wasn’t in danger before February 24,” the day Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine this year.
The young mechanic argues that the Russian constitution grants him the right to object to conscription. However, he is fully aware of the potential consequences the officials could impose upon him.
Talking to the BBC, Ashichev replayed the footage of the meeting, captured on his mobile phone.
“While I was standing there saying those things I was very nervous,” he told BBC reporter Steve Rosenberg. “But when I watched the video back, on the contrary I saw fear in the eyes of the people who were listening to me. I think that’s because they’re used to treating people as objects which they can move from one place to another, or just order them around.”
He added, “Suddenly there I was, saying the things I was saying. Then came the threats. ‘We’ll tell the police about this, and they’ll investigate,’ they said. I get the feeling that these people are terrified of losing control. They’re used to controlling everything.”
Mikhail Ashichev said that he isn’t the only one in his town making a stand against conscription but concedes that he has received backlash from other Russians, particularly on social media.
“He’s a coward and a rat fleeing the ship,” is one comment posted on his VKontakte (VK) account. “A man who does this cannot call himself a man,” another reads.
Others, however, have been more sympathetic to Mikhail’s stance, with positive comments including “Well done, Mikhail, you are brave and honest,” and “Refusing to kill is humane and courageous.”
“Good man,” another comment begins. “You’re not hiding or running away. You’re asking the right question: Who was actually planning to attack us before February 24?”
As reported by British daily newspaper The Metro, following Putin’s announcement, many Russian men of conscription age found themselves woken up in the middle of the night and handed their draft papers. Others had theirs handed to them when they arrived at work on the morning of Thursday, Sept. 22.
It is also alleged that men who do not technically qualify for mobilization are nonetheless being called up, with a 62-year-old trauma doctor telling journalists in September that military officials arrived at his clinic and informed him he had just four hours to pack his belongings and board a bus to a training center.
The mobilization efforts have led to tens of thousands of Russians leaving the country, crossing borders into neighboring countries such as Kazakhstan.
Meanwhile, Ashichev is now weighing up his legal options:
“When mobilization was only being talked about as a possibility, I had already decided and agreed with my family that, if such a situation arose, I would refuse to do this, even if they sent me to prison. If I had to, I would choose prison. That’s nothing to fear. We know that [in Ukraine] people are dying under the rubble and parents are burying their children,” he said.
“The state will consider me a criminal if I don’t go and fight in this war. But I won’t be a criminal from the point of view of humanity, or myself.”