Conscripts ‘kidnapped’ from Ukraine’s east are being thrown into battle against their own countrymen as ‘cannon fodder’ with little equipment, ancient weapons and almost no training, Kyiv‘s men have said.
Serhii, a Ukrainian soldier wounded fighting in the Donbas, said locals press-ganged into Russia’s ranks are being sent on ‘suicide missions’ so that Kyiv’s men will shoot at them, exposing their positions to watching drones and nearby artillery guns.
He described separatist fighters who appeared to be ‘high on something’ rushing at Ukrainian positions in front-on attacks without body armour or support from tanks, and being killed ‘like pieces of meat’.
Kyiv has admitted suffering devastating losses of up to 200 men killed every day in Donbas, largely victim to overwhelming Russian artillery barrages, but insists that Moscow’s forces are being similarly decimated.
As Russian losses have mounted – just under 33,000 on Thursday, according to Kyiv – Putin has been increasingly relying on conscripts to fill the ranks, with locals in occupied Donbas saying their men are being ‘kidnapped’ and forced into service.
A Ukrainian drone drops a bomb on Russian troops loading a truck somewhere in Donbas, as Kyiv’s men say conscripts are being thrown into battle like ‘pieces of meat’
A Russian armoured vehicle is struck by what appears to be a US Javelin missile, as losses mount for both sides in the battle for Donbas
The smouldering remains of a Russian armoured vehicle are seen on a battlefield somewhere in Ukraine after it was hit by an anti-tank rocket
Speaking to The Telegraph about separatist fighters he has encountered, Serhii said: ‘They literally don’t have helmets or armoured vests, and they are being sent to provoke us to start firing.
‘We just kill them like pieces of meat ,but then the [drones] detect us and know our position and they start shelling exactly where we are at that moment.
‘I really have the impression that they are high on something, because I just can’t understand how people without any armour just walk straight at us.’
Though accurate Russian casualties figures are near-impossible to come by, Putin’s army has certainly suffered bigger losses than it anticipated after what was supposed to be a days-long ‘special operation’ stretched into a months-long war.
The Russian president’s framing of the invasion as an ‘operation’ has prevented him from mobilising the country’s military reserves, or conscripting regular Russians to fight – meaning he has been forced to turn elsewhere to make up his losses.
Wagner mercenaries, Syrian fighters, Chechen special forces and conscripts from Russia’s eastern regions – where impoverished locals are less likely to rebel against Moscow – have all been thrown on to the frontlines.
But Putin is also increasingly relying on men conscripted from areas of Ukraine’s east that rebel groups have occupied since 2014 to go into battle.
Conscription was announced in occupied areas of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions – the so-called People’s Republics – in February, shortly before fighting broke out.
Russian soldiers manning an anti-tank missile launcher somewhere in Ukraine’s east are filmed swigging from spirit bottles, amid reports of drug use due to low morale
Russian conscripts from separatist areas have complained of being sent to the frontlines with little equipment and rifles that date back 200 years (pictured)
Originally it was limited to younger men with some combat experience, and they were told they were going in as support units and would not be on the frontlines.
But as Russian casualties have mounted, those parameters have changed.
Conscription has now been increased to anyone up to the age of 60, with some grey-haired soldiers seen on the battlefields.
Locals say military patrols go town-to-town looking for fighting-age men who are often taken from their workplaces to enlist, even if they have no training.
Often, their families are not told they have been taken and no word is sent back home about where they have been deployed or even if they are alive.
Meanwhile conscripted troops on the frontlines complain of being forced to fight without food, proper clothing, or equipment.
In a mutiny message last month from the commanders of the 113th rifle regiment of the DPR, they said men with chronic health conditions such as poor eyesight or tuberculosis had been drafted despite assurances they would be exempt.
Videos and pictures show how men have been armed with ancient Mosin–Nagant rifles that date back to the 1800s, and equipped with World War II-era helmets.
One Donetsk unit leader who spoke to The Telegraph estimated that ‘more than 90 per cent’ of conscripts have no military experience and have never held a rifle before, and said they are being sent into a ‘meat grinder’.
Conscripts from Russian-occupied areas have complained of poor conditions, no food and of people with chronic health conditions being sent to the front
Evidence has emerged that troops are resorting to drink and drugs amid rock-bottom morale, with a unit of Russian solders manning an anti-tank launcher somewhere on the frontlines swigging from bottles of spirits.
Predictably, losses have been heavy. Unlike Russia, the DPR does publish some casualty figures and said earlier this month that 2,061 troops have been killed in the past three months with 8,500 wounded.
The size of the separatists’ army in Donetsk was estimated at 20,000 before the war began. No figures have so far been released by separatist authorities in Luhansk.
Those in the occupied areas – many of whom consider Ukraine to be their home country – have described thousands of men going into hiding to avoid the draft.
Fighting-age men are said to be hiding in the basements and back-rooms of houses where no males are registered, since the draft is organised by address.
Residents who spoke to The Guardian last month said many come out at night, when military patrols looking for conscripts are less frequent.
‘When I walk my dog at 11pm I could see the silhouettes of men smoking behind the curtains, with a window open,’ said one person who asked for anonymity.
‘It usually takes 45 minute to fix a problem with my tyres, and I just grab a coffee nearby,’ said another woman.
‘But last time I was asked to drop my car and leave it over the weekend so that they could bring a guy to fix it at night.’