LONDON (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin on Thursday signed a decree ordering 134,500 new conscripts into the army as part of Russia’s annual spring draft, but the defence ministry said the call-up had nothing to do with the war in Ukraine.
The order came five weeks into Russia’s invasion, which has run into fierce Ukrainian resistance. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday that none of those called up would be sent to any “hot spots”.
The issue of conscripts’ involvement in the war is highly sensitive. On March 9, the defence ministry acknowledged that some had been sent to Ukraine after Putin had denied this on various occasions, saying only professional soldiers and officers had been sent in.
Putin’s spokesman said at the time that the president had ordered military prosecutors to investigate and punish the officials responsible for disobeying his instructions to exclude conscripts.
The annual spring military draft, which runs from April 1 to July 15, will affect Russian men between the ages of 18 and 27, Putin’s decree said.
Shoigu said on Tuesday that those called up would begin to be dispatched to their assigned bases in late May.
“Most military personnel will undergo professional training in training centres for three to five months. Let me emphasize that recruits will not be sent to any hot spots,” he said in remarks published on his ministry’s website.
However, Mikhail Benyash, a lawyer representing several members of Russia’s National Guard who refused an order to go to Ukraine, said that under Russian law conscripts could be sent to fight after several months of training.
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 in what it called a special military operation to demilitarise and “denazify” the country. The war has killed thousands of people and uprooted millions.
In recent days Russia has reframed its objectives, saying it never intended to take the capital Kyiv and other major cities but is focused on “liberating” eastern areas where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian army since 2014.
Its statements have been greeted sceptically by Ukraine and Western governments. Military analysts have suggested the declared focus on the eastern Donbas region may be an attempt to make it easier for Putin to seek a face-saving exit.
(Reporting by Reuters, editing by Mark Trevelyan)