MOSCOW - Russian conscripts are coming under growing pressure to sign up as professional soldiers and fear they might dispatched to fight alongside separatists in Ukraine, rights activists said Monday.
Activists sounded the alarm after a new spike in complaints from recruits doing compulsory military service and their families, that come amid fresh fighting in eastern Ukraine and a breakdown in peace efforts to end the nine-month conflict.
Activists and family members fear that once the conscripts become professional soldiers, they could be trained and sent to eastern Ukraine where fighting has killed more than 5,000 since April.
Ella Polyakova, head of the Soldiers' Mothers of Saint Petersburg, said her group had received some two dozen new complaints since December.
According to the complaints, most of them anonymous, once conscripts sign contracts they can be sent to take part in military drills in southern Russia, on the border with Ukraine.
"People are very afraid," Polyakova told AFP. "They don't say directly what they are afraid of but their fear is obvious."
Among those who have come under pressure in recent weeks to sign contracts are soldiers serving in Siberia, Saint Petersburg, the northern Murmansk region and Nizhny Novgorod in central Russia.
Polyakova said the last time her group saw a spike in such complaints was in July and August 2014 when thousands of Russian troops are believed to have been sent across the Ukrainian border to buttress struggling Kremlin-backed insurgents and turn the tide in the Ukraine conflict.
The Kremlin insists it is not a party to the Ukraine conflict and denies regular Russian troops are on the ground in eastern Ukraine.
Irina Paikacheva, a Murmansk-based rights activist working with servicemen and their families, said contract soldiers serving there were being prepared to be dispatched on a mission, apparently to the border with Ukraine "and further."
"This is a new wave of attempts to engage servicemen," Paikacheva told AFP.
Multiple evidence - including first-hand accounts and secret funerals across the country - points to Russia's intervention in Ukraine.
President Vladimir Putin said in December that any Russians fighting in Ukraine had gone there as volunteers "following the call of the heart."
Activists complain their attempts to get the authorities to probe Russian soldiers' deaths have been stonewalled.
The defence ministry declined comment.