Introducing even partial mobilisation has been a move that the Kremlin had strenuously avoided until now, with Putin making a solemn promise on International Women’s Day on March 8 that conscripts “do not and will not participate in hostilities”.
But a nationwide recruiting campaign, both by the Russian Army and by the Kremlin-affiliated Wagner Group private military firm, has clearly failed to produce sufficient volunteers – despite offering signing bonuses equivalent to several months’ pay and actively recruiting thieves and murderers from Russian prisons. The Kremlin’s attempt to fight the war with an army of expendables had failed.
On Moscow’s Old Arbat street, a crowd of about two hundred mostly young people assembled for a protest.
Many wore masks to avoid being spotted by facial-recognition cameras.
“No to War!” they chanted in unison – before riot police moved in with lightning speed to bundle them into waiting buses. “I am not afraid of anything any more,” said Maria, a middle-aged woman who had joined the protest, adding: “I will not give my children to fight this bloody war!”
Another young woman, who clung to two male friends as police dragged them away, shouted: “Putin is a traitor! He has ruined Russia!”
According to the OVD-info human right organisation, some 1,300 people were detained at protests in more than 30 Russian cities with most being released after paying fines of up to $1,200. But many military-age male protesters were not so lucky. Several opposition activists, including Kirill Goncharov, a senior member of the Yabloko party, have published photos of call-up papers ordering them to report to local draft offices.
Conscripts are, for the moment, still not eligible for front-line military service in Ukraine – but army service is clearly being used as a punishment for dissent. “It was only to be expected that [authorities] started using mobilisation from day one to put pressure on the protesters,” said Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora association of human rights lawyers.
Vladimir Solovyov, a Kremlin propagandist, promised on his Telegram channel that all opponents of the regime would find themselves immediately in uniform.
The police “will check documents [on] the spot, identify them, detain them and send them to … military registration and enlistment offices”.
Russian social media coined a term for Mr Putin’s call up – “mogilizatsita”, a mash-up of the Russian word mogila, or grave, and mobilisation.
Unusually long lines to leave Russia were reported overnight and yesterday morning at once-sleepy border crossings, including those with Mongolia and Kazakhstan in the east and Georgia in the south, where hundreds of cars were pictured stuck in a night-time massive traffic jam.
In the Chelyabinsk region, which borders Kazakhstan, dozens of men were seen standing near their cars in the vast steppe just after dawn.
At Moscow airports, border guards reportedly conducted spot checks on young men, quizzing them about their eligibility to be called up.
Mr Putin’s sudden decision to reverse six months of so-called “hidden mobilisation” and go public with a nationwide, if so far partial, call-up, took not just ordinary Russians but political insiders by surprise.
“I believe many people [in the Russian elite] were taken aback,” said one former senior Kremlin official who worked with Mr Putin until 2016.
“Politically, this is a move that you would not make unless you were desperate. That is a change of message. Everything is not going to plan.”
Indeed, Putin himself in recent speeches in Vladivostok and Samarkand had gone out of his way to be as boring and low-key as possible, talking about the “challenges” to the Russian economy but not explicitly mentioning the war at all.
Though the protests against mobilisation were small, the sudden rise in visibility of the war is likely to send politically dangerous shock waves through Russian society.
Though a large majority of Russians still claim to support Putin, private Kremlin polling leaked in July showed that Russians were evenly split between supporting a continuation of the conflict or making peace. Some 15 per cent of respondents were strongly in favour of what the Kremlin calls the “special military operation”, a similar number strongly against, with a 35-35 per cent divide between those who were mildly for and middle opposed.
After Putin’s partial mobilisation, one thing is clear – the Kremlin plan to keep the war low-key and fight it using expendable volunteers, colonial troops from ethnic minority provinces, such as Buryatia and Chechnya, and prisoners has failed.
The author of this dispatch remains anonymous because of reporting restrictions.
The Telegraph, London
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