Editor’s Note: The Kyiv Independent isn’t revealing last names of the people from the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine interviewed for this story for safety reasons.
Nearly every man that Oleksii, a 24-year-old resident of Russian-occupied Khrestivka in Donetsk Oblast, knows – friends, school classmates, and former colleagues from a coal mine – has been illegally conscripted by Russian-controlled proxies.
None of them have served in the military before, he says. Yet many of them have been thrown into the hottest spots of Russia’s war against Ukraine.
“These people have never even held a machine gun in their hands,” Oleksii told the Kyiv Independent.
In the weeks following Russia’s all-out war that began on Feb. 24, Russian-controlled militants escalated hostilities in Donbas, the partially-occupied region in eastern Ukraine in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts that was invaded by Russia in 2014.
Russia’s proxies wrongfully accused Ukraine’s Armed Forces of escalation, announced a demonstrative evacuation of women and children from Donbas to Russia and launched a mobilization campaign conscripting all men under 55.
Oleksii himself has managed to avoid mobilization by luck. When the campaign started, he was in Vinnytsia, a regional capital in central Ukraine. He arrived there to take exams at his school, Donetsk National University, where he is pursuing a master’s degree in computer sciences. The university relocated from Donetsk after Russia occupied it in 2014.
His former colleagues from the Komsomolets Donbasu coal mine, however, have faced a different fate. Oleksii says that they were abducted by Russian-backed militants right from their workplaces and deployed to the southern front in Mariupol, a city in Donetsk Oblast that has seen some of the heaviest fighting since Feb. 24.
The only friend of Oleksii who hasn’t yet been forcefully conscripted to the Russian army is 27-year-old Serhii. The Komsomolets Donbasu coal mine listed him as an “essential worker” and provided him with exemption from mobilization.
The exemption expires in April, and Serhii isn’t certain whether the coal mine will prolong it.
When asked through Oleksii to speak on the record, Serhii declined. “I won’t speak to a journalist. No offense, mate. Today I’m at home, tomorrow they can take me away, and my mom and girlfriend will stay in Khrestivka and face issues,” he wrote in a text message to Oleksii, which the Kyiv Independent has seen.
Many locals are afraid of talking with Ukrainian or Western media. Many think that the Russian Federal Security Service will access their correspondence on social media platforms or listen in on their phone calls.
In a conversation with Oleksii, Serhii confirmed that many of his co-workers from the coal mine, civilians with no previous military experience, were forcefully mobilized to the Russian army, and the majority of them are engaged in combat in Ukraine alongside Russian troops.
Seed of doubt
Oleksii provided the Kyiv Independent with access to his account on the Russian social network VK, where the Komsomolets Donbasu coal mine workers and their family members chat in a closed group.
We saw dozens of posts where the wives of illegally mobilized Donbas residents were discussing their plans on how to find their husbands: Some suggested going to Russian-occupied Donetsk for a protest near the Russian proxy headquarters, others shared that they wrote letters to Russian President Vladimir Putin asking for help but got no response.
“We have to do something! My husband called me yesterday and said they are at the forefront of combat, and it’s terrible,” Iryna wrote in a closed group.
Men in the comments were asking if there was any way to avoid mobilization or leave the occupied parts of Donbas. The group members agreed that the chances are low.
The Kyiv Independent reached one of the men who hadn't left his house for two weeks, hiding from Russian-controlled forces. Ivan, a 25-year-old miner, said in a voice message that militants stop men everywhere, simply on their way to grocery stores, and ask for an ID. If a man doesn’t have an ID, militants take him to a “police station” for identification and, after that, send him directly to a mobilization point.
“They (militants) walk around, knock on all the apartments’ doors, looking for men,” Ivan said.
They send conscripts to what they assure is a 3-7-day military exercise but when they arrive they are deployed to fight Ukraine, according to Ivan.
He hasn’t heard from his mobilized friends for a week. At some point, Ivan stopped answering the Kyiv Independent’s questions and later deleted the chat.
Several women in the closed Komsomolets Donbasu coal mine VK group said that someone they know has already been notified that their sons, about 18-years-old, were killed in combat.
After that, they write, they began to doubt news on Russian state TV and started to watch Ukrainian TV channels on YouTube.
“Why is it rattling so terribly? Why is everything in Volnovakha and Mariupol so different from what they say on TV? What will happen to our men? Why don’t they talk about our men dying?” Natalia wondered in a post.
According to the intelligence unit of Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, the vast majority of mobilized Donbas residents are sent to the hottest spots without special training “to clear obstacles and dig trenches.” The losses among new recruits reach 70-80%, the ministry said.
It also reported that Russia uses the Donetsk Metallurgical Plant to burn the corpses of Donbas residents killed in battle to hide the actual number of casualties.
In mid-February, Yevhen, another employee of the Komsomolets Donbasu coal mine, was discussing the prospective mobilization with his boss. The boss told him that mobilization would be mandatory but assured it would not happen anytime soon.
But at midnight on Feb. 21, Yevhen, 27, was told to pack his stuff and come to the mobilization point.
His wife Anastasia tried to persuade him not to go, as he had not received an official invitation. The family has two daughters, five and three years old.
But Yevhen told her that “nobody could weasel their way out.”
After enlistment, he has been moved between at least five settlements before Anastasia lost touch with her husband. The last time they talked, he was somewhere near Mariupol.
“We haven’t gotten in touch for five days,” she told the Kyiv Independent in a phone call.
Anastasia says that conscripts from Donbas were transported in a military truck with no roof for 14 hours, amid the freezing winter weather. She also said that the recruits didn’t have food and water for three days.
“They witnessed things one doesn’t even see in movies,” she said.
According to Anastasia, civilians from Donbas are forced to be at front-line positions. Otherwise, Russian forces threaten to shoot them.
Many of the Donbas conscripts are seriously wounded, or have been killed, Anastasia said.
“And I still don’t know what happened to my husband,” she added.