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In Russia's Poorest Regions, Mothers And Wives Are Fighting To Bring Their Soldiers Back Home

By Siberia.Realities, Robert Coalson July 12, 2022

"My brother was sent for 333 exercises," said a woman from the south Siberian region of Buryatia about her relative serving in the Russian military in Ukraine. "He didn't sign up for a war in another country. It was basically a deception. Only on the eve of the invasion were they informed they would cross the border."

The woman, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions for her anti-war activities, is one of a growing number of mothers, sisters, and partners of Russian soldiers from poor regions like Buryatia and Tyva who are coming together to press officials to let their loved ones return home.

"He called me from Belarus [on the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February]," the woman continued. "He complained that their 'arms were being twisted,' but I could tell he was scared to refuse. Apparently, he was threatened not just with a tribunal but with physical harm."

Using closed discussion groups on the secure Vyber direct-messaging app, the women are sharing information and legal advice on how their relatives serving in Ukraine can legally avoid further combat.

Ailana, a soldier's mother from the south Siberian region of Tyva (sometimes written Tuva) whose name has been changed for this report, says her son had a similar experience. His unit was moved to Belarus for exercises in January and sent into Ukraine on February 24 with orders to capture Kyiv in two days.

He was only able to speak with his mother again in mid-March, when his unit was pulled out of Ukraine to regroup. During that conversation, her son told her how his unit had been deceived and how many of the soldiers were seeking ways to avoid being sent back. Ailana consulted with lawyers, but, in the meantime, her son was sent back for another tour in Ukraine.

For weeks, Ailana heard nothing from her son -- a period she described as one of the worst of her life. In June, however, she found a lawyer who explained to her how a contract soldier could officially refuse combat duty.

"When my son filed his appeal saying he didn't want to fight anymore, they began to threaten him," Ailana recalled. "They told him he'd face a tribunal and get sent to prison for eight years. He called me and said, 'Mama, what should I do?' But I had spoken with lawyers and I told him that it was just a bluff."

Later, she said, her son and 13 other soldiers who had taken the same step were shamed in front of their unit and labeled "traitors." However, in part because of Ailana's advice, all 14 withstood the humiliation and threats and were released. They have since returned to Trkto Tyva.

The rights group Free Buryatia reported on July 11 that about 150 soldiers from that region had successfully refused further deployment to Ukraine and had returned home on July 9. Before being sent back, the soldiers were reportedly held at a closed military base and threatened with criminal prosecution. The head of Free Buryatia, Aleksandra Garmazhapova, congratulated the soldiers in a post on Facebook, telling them they had "saved their own lives and the lives of others."

At the end of June, more than a dozen wives and mothers of Buryat soldiers issued a video appeal to Buryatia Governor Aleksei Tsydenov, urging him to bring home their loved ones from Ukraine.

"They have been participating in the 'special operation' since February 24," the women said in the video. "They are exhausted morally and physically."

An activist from Tyva, who asked to be identified as Vasily, says he is aware of at least 20 more soldiers from the region who have refused further combat but have not been allowed to return home. He and his wife are actively involved in Vyber and Instagram groups dedicated to helping soldiers escape their military contracts.

"Lately, women in these groups have been discussing how their men can refuse to participate in the 'special operation,'" Vasily told RFE/RL, using the term for the Ukraine war that the Kremlin insists upon. "Apparently, they are becoming aware of the enormous losses in the war. Earlier...they just exchanged information when one would get a phone call."

Women from Tyva have also begun gathering money to buy food and other supplies for their troops after receiving information about chronic shortages, Vasily said. He added that he had heard of cases of local residents collecting money to send radio transmitters and drones to their loved ones in Ukraine.

"We are in contact with the 55th Motorized Infantry Brigade," Vasily said. "There, 29 men have submitted refusals to be sent again to Ukraine. They have not yet been released from the army, but have been sent to work in a funeral detachment. But most of them have returned to Tyva. They told us that out of about 100 men who were sent back to the front last week, 10 have been killed and 20 injured."

Since the early days of Russia's invasion, analysts and activists have noted that impoverished, non-ethnic Russian regions like Tyva and Buryatia, including North Caucasus regions like North Ossetia and Daghestan, have suffered disproportionate per capita casualties in the war. Although the Russian authorities have not released comprehensive casualty figures, RFE/RL has recorded 159 military deaths from Buryatia. More than 100 have been officially acknowledged in Tyva.

According to an analysis by U.S. political scientist Adam Lenton in April, North Ossetia, Buryatia, Tyva, Daghestan, Ingushetia, and Chukotka are among the top nine Russian regions in terms of military deaths per 100,000 population.

Young men from such regions often see military contract service as their only escape from poverty. Average income in Tyva is 10,000-15,000 rubles ($170-260) a month.

The exact number of Russian troops killed in Ukraine in more than four months of the war remains unknown.

Ukrainian authorities claim that more than 35,000 Russian troops have been killed, while the Russian Defense Ministry last commented on the subject in March, saying that 1,351 of its personnel had died.

Ailana said that when her son was sent home, another soldier, also from Tyva, took his place.

"He arrived without any ammunition for his rifle," she told RFE/RL. "My son looked at him in shock and said, 'Where do you think you are? This is a war.' And the new guy just blinked and stared."

Ailana said her son gave the new soldier his helmet, his bulletproof vest, and all his remaining ammunition.

Source: https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-ukraine-war-women- soldiers-home-buryatia-tyva/31940262.html

Copyright (c) 2022. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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