Russian demonstrations and panic are in response to Putin's call for "partial mobilization."
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Many in Russia fear a "partial mobilization" of the military is the first step in a move that would see more and more men fight – and die – in Ukraine. Some have tried to escape and others have even dared to protest.
Russian President Vladimir Putin made a rare televised address to the Russian people on Wednesday morning when he announced a "partial mobilization," saying the measure was needed to protect Russian people from what he called "the entire war machine of the collective West" in Ukraine.
Putin followed the announcement with repeated assurances that this mobilization is just "partial." He emphasized that it only concerns reservists and those who have previously served in the army or have military experience.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also addressed the public, saying conscripts and students would not be called up to fight and that only 300,000 people would be drafted under the new mobilization measure.
The measure was not completely unexpected. Discussions about whether Russia would need more soldiers took on a new urgency this month after Ukraine retook control over more than 6,000 square kilometers (about 2,320 square miles) of territory that had been under Russian control.
Throughout the war, there have been reports about a drive in Russia to enlist more men to fight, including advertisements on jobseeker websites promising fast cash. In mid-September, footage circulated on social media that allegedly showed Kremlin-linked businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin recruiting Russian prisoners to fight in Ukraine as part of the Wagner mercenary group.
Military experts argue the recent Russian retreat marks a turning point in the war
Putin's announcement Wednesday made the call to arms official. But his order, published on the Kremlin website, has raised questions.
The document outlined the legal status of the soldiers being drafted in 10 points, but the seventh point was never published. Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov has said it concerned the number of conscripts and was intended only for administrative use. That has raised questions about whether the Kremlin only intends to conscript 300,000 soldiers.
Running from draft cards
In Russia, not everyone took the Kremlin's assurances at face value. On the messaging app Telegram, groups with titles like "Where they are handing out draft cards" and "Draft cards Russia" became hubs of activity with tens of thousands of members. The groups shared messages about where the police could lurk to hand out draft cards.
"Moscow — Metro crossing from Chekhov to Pushkin station. Police with pieces of paper are walking around stopping men," one post reads, complete with a blurry photo of police and passengers. Another shows men wearing camouflage and reads "St. Petersburg — they have started coming through student dorms."
DW was not able to verify these posts before the publication of this article, but they reflect the panic that Putin's announcement caused for some today. One pro-Kremlin and pro-war Telegram channel responded to the messages about draft cards, accusing those posting them of being pro-Ukrainian: "We aren't like you. And on our streets no one is being grabbed [by police]."
All about the wording?
Kremlin critics believe some panic over the "partial mobilization" could be justified.
"The main news of the day is that Russia has announced mobilzation," Sergei Krivenko, a former member of the Russian Presidential Council for Human Rights, told DW, explaining that what is "partial" today can become universal "at a moment's notice."
Krivenko, who currently heads the human rights group "Citizen. Army. Rights," pointed out that the numbers of conscripts cited by the Kremlin were not published in any official documents.
Prominent Russian opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov shared these doubts. "'Partial mobilization' is just what it's being called," Gudkov told DW. The politician had to flee the country in June for fear of arrest. "I carefully read Putin's whole order. They are mobilizing everyone," he claimed, adding that there are simply categories of people who will be called up to fight first.
"They are drafting additional cannon fodder. It's the latest funeral campaign that Putin has announced," he said. "I wrote to a lot of people today saying, 'Guys, leave the country.'"
Prices for flights out of Russia skyrocketed after the mobilization announcement
A rush to leave Russia
It seems many people have reached the same conclusion as Gudkov. Local media reported that flights to leave Russia in the next few days to countries that do not require a visa were almost immediately sold out, with prices for some tickets to destinations like Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan reportedly shooting up to the equivalent of over €2,000 ($1,970).
Russian opposition media outlet Meduza published an article titled "Where to escape to from Russia right now," featuring lists of countries and their entry requirements. European Union members Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia announced they will not offer refuge to Russians fleeing Moscow's mobilization. The Baltic nations' ban, however, does not include dissidents or refugees.
The Russian government has said "conscripts and students" will not be called up to fight
A backdrop of war
It is hard to know how widespread the negative reaction to the partial draft is across Russian society. Denis Volkov from the independent Russian pollster Levada center says many people have grown accustomed to "living in a conflict situation," which feels like it is just in the "background" for many people for now, though the mobilization could bring the conflict "closer."
Since Russia's military invaded Ukraine in February, Russia has also become increasingly authoritarian. Despite protesters facing strict laws, demonstrations against the "partial mobilization" have taken place across Russia, with over 1,200 people arrested in 30 cities, according to the rights group OVD info. Hundreds of thousands have already signed a petition against partial and universal mobilization. These steps come despite "discrediting" the armed forces being a crime punishable by a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
Larger demonstrations, however, were unlikely, as Denis Volkov from the independent Russian pollster Levada-Center said: "Mass protests are impossible in Russia at the moment. Even the idea of it is something out of a fantasy."
- Author Emily Sherwin/ DW