LONDON, Military conscripts in the Russian-backed Donbas region have been sent into front-line combat against Ukrainian troops with no training, little food and water, and inadequate weapons, six people in the separatist province told Reuters.
The new accounts of untrained and ill-equipped conscripts being deployed are a fresh indication of how stretched the military resources at the Kremlin's disposal are, over a month into a war that has seen Moscow's forces hobbled by logistical problems and held up by fierce Ukrainian resistance.
One of the people, a student conscripted in late February, said a fellow fighter told him to prepare to repel a close-quarter attack by Ukrainian forces in southwest Donbas but "I don't even know how to fire an automatic weapon."
The student and his unit fired back and evaded capture, but he was injured in a later battle. He did not say when the fighting took place.
While some information indicating poor conditions and morale among Donbas conscripts has emerged in social media and some local media outlets, Reuters was able to assemble one of the most comprehensive pictures to date.
Besides the student draftee, Reuters spoke to three wives of conscripts who have mobile phone contact with their partners, one acquaintance of a draftee, and one source close to the pro-Russian separatist leadership who is helping to organize supplies for the Donbas armed forces.
Reuters verified the identity of the student, as well as the other sources and the draftees they are associated with. The news agency was unable to confirm independently the accounts of what happened to the men once they were drafted.
The six sources all asked that their full names not be published, saying that they feared reprisals for speaking to foreign media.
The Donbas armed forces are fighting alongside Russian soldiers but are not part of the Russian armed forces, which have different rules about which troops they send into combat.
Several Donbas draftees have been issued with a rifle called a Mosin, which was developed in the late 19th century and went out of production decades ago, according to three people who saw conscripts from the separatist region using the weapon. Images shared on social media, that Reuters has not been able to verify independently, also showed Donbas fighters with Mosin rifles.
The student said he was forced to drink water from a fetid pond because of lack of supplies. Two other sources in contact with draftees also told Reuters the men had to drink untreated water.
Some Donbas conscripts were given the highly dangerous mission of drawing enemy fire onto themselves so other units could identify the Ukrainian positions and bomb them, according to one of the sources and video testimony from a prisoner of war published by Ukrainian forces.
Asked to comment about the treatment and low morale of the Donbass draftees, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was a question for the Donetsk People's Republic (DNR), the self-proclaimed separatist entity in Donbas. The Russian defence ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokeswoman for the DNR administration, after viewing Reuters questions, said there would be no response on Friday. She did not say when the administration would reply. Messages left with a spokesman for the separatist military went unanswered.
After being pushed to the front line near the port of Mariupol -- scene of the heaviest fighting in the war -- a group of about 135 Donbas conscripts laid down their arms and refused to fight on, according to Veronika, the partner of a conscript, who said her husband was among them. Marina, partner of another conscript, said she had been in contact with a friend who was part of the same group.
"We're refusing (to fight)," the friend wrote in a text message to Marina, seen by Reuters.
The men were kept in a basement by military commanders as punishment, Veronika and Marina said. Commanders verbally threatened them with reprisals but subsequently allowed the group out of the basement, pulled them back from the front line and billeted them in abandoned homes, Veronika said.
Neither the Kremlin nor separatist authorities answered Reuters questions about the incident.
All sides in the Ukraine war have systems of conscription, where young men are required by law to do military service.
Ukraine's government has declared a general mobilisation, meaning that conscripts and reservists have been deployed to fight.
Russia says it is not deploying conscripts in Ukraine, though it has acknowledged a small number were mistakenly sent to fight. read more
The Donetsk separatist authorities announced in late February they were drafting all fighting age men for immediate deployment.
Military recruitment officers appeared at workplaces around the Donetsk region and told employees to report for duty, while police ordered people in the streets to report to their local draft office, according to a Reuters reporter who was there in late February. Anyone not complying risks prosecution.
Reuters could not determine how many people have been called up, nor what proportion of Donbas forces is comprised of draftees.
None of the five draftees had prior military experience or training, and four of the five were given no training before they were sent into combat, according to the injured draftee, the three wives of conscripted men, and the acquaintance.
"He never served in the army," said one of the partners, who gave her name as Olga and lives in the town of Makeevka. "He doesn't even really know how to hold an automatic weapon."
Two of the wives said their partners were deployed to the front line, where they saw heavy fighting.
"I'm in the war," read a text message, seen by Reuters, that Marina, also from Makeevka, said came from her drafted husband.
Marina said she learned from messages from her husband that his unit, fighting in the Donbas region, was ordered to draw enemy fire on to themselves.
Ukrainian forces on March 12 published a video showing a prisoner of war. He said his name was Ruslan Khalilov, that he was a civil servant from Donbas and that he was sent with zero training to Mariupol where his role was to draw enemy fire to facilitate the bombing of Ukrainian targets.
A person in Donbas who knows Khalilov confirmed to Reuters his identity, that he was drafted and has no military training. Reuters established that the person knows Khalilov.
The student draftee who spoke to Reuters said that a day after reporting for duty he was put in a mortar unit then sent towards the fighting. "We were taught nothing," he wrote to Reuters via messenger app.
"Up to that point I had only seen mortars in movies. Obviously, I didn't know how to do anything with them."
He said that before he left, his unit had been under repeated attack by Ukrainian troops. "There were lots of casualties," he wrote. "I hate the war. I don't want it, curse it. Why are they sending me into a slaughterhouse?"
All the accounts gathered by Reuters mentioned an acute shortage of supplies. The sources described little or no safe drinking water, field rations for one man being shared among several, and units having to scavenge food.
"We drank water with dead frogs in it," said the student conscript.
"Supplies for the soldiers right now are a disaster," said the source close to the Donetsk separatist leadership, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Neither the Kremlin nor the separatist authorities replied to Reuters’ questions about supplies and equipment for the draftees from Donbas.
WORLD WAR TWO RIFLE
The same source said some conscripts were issued with the Mosin rifle from reserve stocks that date back to the Second World War.
The student conscript said he has seen fellow fighters using the rifle: "It's like we're fighting with World War Two muskets."
A soldier in the Russian armed forces who is fighting near Mariupol told Reuters he had seen soldiers from the Donetsk separatist military carrying Mosin rifles.
A video posted on social media on Tuesday by Russian military journalist Semyon Pegov showed a man who said he was a Donbas draftee brandishing a Mosin rifle.
Soon after the men were drafted in late February, many of their wives, mothers, and sisters started writing petitions to the separatist leadership, to Donbas draft offices, and to the Kremlin, describing their treatment and seeking help.
"Bring us back our men," said one petition addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin, seen by Reuters.
The three wives of draftees who spoke to Reuters said they received no definitive answers.
On March 11, about 100 women gathered outside the separatist administration’s offices in Donetsk to demand answers, in a rare public show of dissent.
Two women who took part in the gathering said Alexander Malkovsky, the head of the DNR draft office, came out and told them that men aged 18 to 27 would be exempted from the draft. Reuters couldn't determine if this has been implemented, and was unable to reach Malkovsky.
Two of the conscripts' wives said that since the gathering they learned from their partners that conditions had improved: some units were pulled back from the front line and allowed to sleep in abandoned homes, instead of in trenches.