An avoidance market emerges
Vladimir Putin’s military mobilization order has led to a significant uproar in Russia, from protests in several regions to an estimated 700,000 Russians leaving the country in a little over two weeks. Many Russian citizens, meanwhile, have been trying to avoid the draft by resorting to time-honored tricks such as hunkering down at relatives’ homes or equipping themselves with fake documents.
Since September 21, when Putin’s partial mobilization was announced, Flashpoint analysts have observed a growing amount of chatter in Russian illicit communities and social media platforms about these methods. We have also seen an underground market of fake certificates and other services to avoid the draft emerging on various forums, including Telegram. The market seems to have really taken off around September 26, after rumors circulated that Russian authorities may close borders to prevent military-age men from fleeing the country. Though this did not happen, authorities have tried to make it more difficult for men to leave Russia, even setting up draft offices near the border.
These services build on existing phenomena of corruption and nepotism, but industrialize it in a way that simplifies and speeds up the process. Some of them are likely scams that build on the widespread belief that bribes are an easy and reliable way to get out of the draft. The services offered mirror a similar underground market of fake COVID-19 vaccination and test certificates that Flashpoint observed in 2021. Flashpoint has observed this activity across a wide range of platforms that include chat platforms, illicit communities, and social media.
One kind of service offered is fake employment contracts. A threat actor on two popular Russian-speaking forums explained that they are able to get people “employed” in oil and gas facilities in Russia’s two oil-producing regions on sham contracts, which would automatically grant them deferment from mobilization due to the strategically important nature of these industries. Depending on how quickly the certificate is needed and whether the applicant has professional qualifications, the service could cost up to 150,000 rubles (US$2,460), more than three times the average salary in Russia’s poorer regions. A similar service on another Russian-speaking forum, costs 200,000-250,000 rubles, including bribes to be paid to officials.
Another popular way to avoid the draft is to fake a chronic illness. Russian Telegram-groups where people opposing the draft congregate have shared lists of diseases that would officially make men unfit to serve in the army. Threat actors have mobilized to offer fake certificates of chronic illnesses such as HIV and hepatitis, relying on access to electronic health records, similarly to fake COVID-19 vaccination certificates. Users on the some forums even specified the names of clinics and hospitals where they are able to take care of such requests, while another service combined its offer with a falsified letter from an unnamed Israeli clinic, which would allow the buyer to leave the country ostensibly for medical treatment. The price of these services were typically quoted between 10,000 and 40,000 rubles (US$165 and 660).
Manual name removal
A more straightforward service is the removal of names from databases handled by conscription offices, which often only exist on paper and not digitally. The prices for such services are typically identical to the price of fake health certificates. Here is what we’re seeing in terms of prices advertised on popular forums:
One reason for the panic is that mobilization seems to be not partial, as officially announced, but extensive and, in places, haphazard, where officially announced exceptions—including for IT professionals—count little if at all. Analysts have seen fewer instances of offers related to fake higher education certificates, even though, according to a decree issued by Putin on September 24, certain categories of students are exempt from the draft. This discrepancy may be due to the fact that Russian threat actors have accumulated more experience falsifying health certificates. Nonetheless, Flashpoint analysts did observe some offers. On a highly active forum a user was offering five places at an unnamed university, beginning at 150,000 rubles (US$2,460), while others shared a list of regions where, in their knowledge, the problem can be “taken care of.”
Monitoring this emerging market provides insights not only about the mood among Russian internet users and the cyber underground in the face of increasing domestic pressures, but also about the kinds of corruption that make it harder for the state to enforce its decisions in the country. A recent investigation revealed that residents of poorer regions are significantly more affected than residents of wealthier regions where people typically have fewer means to defend themselves from the agents of the state. Furthermore, the market also allows insight into the vulnerabilities of Russian state information systems that underpin these services.
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