Flights out of major Russian cities are booked up for days and long lines of cars snake to the nation’s frontiers with Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia, as reservists fearing being sent to fight in Ukraine flee President Vladimir Putin’s mass mobilization order in their thousands.
The exodus has been prompted by reports from dissident Russian websites, citing unidentified officials, that the government may ban men from leaving from Wednesday. On Monday, however, the Kremlin said there has been no decision to seal border crossings to halt the exodus prompted by Russia’s first conscription since World War II, decreed by Putin last week. Still, state-run and private media are reporting that guards at some frontiers have begun turning military-aged men away, citing the mobilization order.
While the criteria for exactly who is called up remains unclear, Russia lists millions of former conscripts as official reservists, who are liable to form part of a 300,000-strong draft to turn the tide of Putin’s faltering war in Ukraine. “Call-up notices are being served to everyone,” Roman Isif, a Russian who fled to Larsi, Georgia, told the AP. “Nobody knows who will receive one tomorrow.”
Public criticism of Putin’s “special military operation”—as his Feb. 24 full-scale invasion of Ukraine is termed officially—is banned in Russia, but the visceral public reaction to the mobilization order has sparked the first sustained protests locally since the war began. Over 3,000 people have been arrested in recent days, according to monitoring groups. On social media, videos have showed protesters chanting “No to war!” in several Russian cities. Penalties for dodging the draft have been increased to up to 10 years imprisonment.
“There is potential for the mobilization orders to be expanded further,” Alex Lord, senior Eurasia analyst specializing in security and politics of the former Soviet Union at the Sibylline global strategic risk advisory firm, tells TIME. “What we’re seeing now is likely to be just the first phase, so there’s potential for further backlash moving forward as well.”
Reaction has been particularly fierce in areas with high levels of ethnic minorities—such as predominantly Muslim Dagestan and communities of Mongolian Buddhists in Siberia—who are fearful that they will be dispatched to the frontline over ethnic Russians of the more affluent cities. In Dagestan, protesters have blocked roads and clashed with security forces.
On Monday, the U.K. Ministry of Defense said that papers had already been set to “many tens of thousands” of draftees, who were “likely to suffer a high attrition rate.” That same day, the online service Yandex Maps showed an 11 mile-long traffic jam on a road leading up to the border with Georgia in Russia’s North Ossetia region.
Similar lines are reported at airports as Russians attempt to flee to any neighboring country that could provide sanctuary.
Although Russian state television has shown crowds of eager men lining up to enlist, the chaos of the mobilization order has also prompted rare criticism from pro-Kremlin figures. Some commentators have said that draft officers who call up the wrong people should be sent to the front to fight themselves.
Lord says this is part of a new effort by the Kremlin to pin blame on Russia’s failure on Russia’s Defense Ministry, with Deputy Minister Dmitry Bulgakov sacked last week. However, the issuing of draft papers to students, the infirm, and people with little combat experience, Lord adds, was likely a direct result of Kremlin quotas that local commissars were scrambling to fulfill.
Chechnya leader and staunch Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov—who has prominently mobilized his people to volunteer for Russia in Ukraine—even felt it necessary to clarify that the mobilization order did not apply to his people, who he said had already fulfilled their quotas for fighting men.
Meanwhile, enlistment offices and other administrative buildings have been torched by Molotov cocktails since Putin’s order. Independent media outlets noted at least 17 such incidents in recent days, reports the AP.
In the Siberian city of Ust-Ilimsk, one man walked into the enlistment office on Monday and shot the military commandant. Local media reports that the gunman was upset that his friend with no combat experience was drafted. On Sunday, a man set himself ablaze at a bus station in Ryazan, a city about 130 miles southeast of Moscow, shouting he didn’t want to fight. He survived with minor injuries and was placed under arrest.
The mobilization efforts takes place against the backdrop of Kremlin-orchestrated referenda in four Ukrainian regions occupied by its forces, which many see as a pretext to annexation. Preliminary results on Tuesday in the four regions show over 97% of voters in favor of joining Russia. Western leaders have condemned the polls as a sham.
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