Ukraine war comes home to Russians as Putin imposes draft

Russian police detaining a protester during a demonstration against the mobilisation of reservists by President Vladimir Putin, in Moscow on Sept 21, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW - A day after President Vladimir Putin announced a call-up that could sweep 300,000 civilians into military service, thousands of Russians across the country received draft papers on Thursday and some were being marched to buses and planes for training - and perhaps soon a trip to the front lines in Ukraine.

Mr Putin's escalation of the war effort was reverberating across the country, according to interviews, Russian news reports and social media posts. As the day wore on, it became increasingly clear that Mr Putin's decision had torn open the cocoon shielding much of Russian society from their leader's invasion of a neighbour.

Mothers, wives and children were saying tearful goodbyes in remote regions as officials - in some cases, ordinary schoolteachers - delivered draft notices to houses and apartment blocks. In mountainous eastern Siberia, the Russian news media reported, school buses were being commandeered to move troops to training grounds.

Russian officials said the call-up would be limited to people with combat experience. But the net appeared wider, and some men decided it was best to head for the borders.

Ms Yanina Nimayeva, a journalist from the Buryatia region of Siberia, said her husband, a father of five and an employee in the emergency department in the regional capital, had been inexplicably called up. She said he received a summons to an urgent 4am meeting where it was announced that a train had been organised to take men to the city of Chita, southeast of Siberia.

"My husband is 38 years old, he is not in the reserve, he did not serve," Ms Nimayeva said in a video addressed to regional officials.

Despite the Kremlin's crackdown on dissent, protests erupted on Wednesday night across Russia in response to Mr Putin's move, with at least 1,312 people arrested, according to the human rights watchdog OVD-Info. More protests were reported on Thursday, including in Dagestan, an impoverished southern Russian region where anti-draft protesters blocked a federal highway.

"When we fought in 1941 to 1945 - that was a war," one man yelled in a video of an angry crowd widely shared on social media, referring to the Eastern Front of World War II. "And now it's not war, it's politics."

Military-age men clogged airports and border crossings trying to flee, and some ended up in distant cities such as Istanbul and Namangan, Uzbekistan.

"We decided that we don't want to live in this country anymore," one reservist said after arriving in Turkey.

Historians said it was the first time since World War II that the Kremlin had declared a wartime mobilisation. Mr Putin's spokesman, however, maintained on Thursday that officials would continue referring to the invasion he ordered as only a "special military operation", and not a war.

In Moscow, where there were reports of young professionals with no military experience being called up, a Russian lawyer, Mr Grigory Vaypan, compared the shock of Thursday to Feb 24, the day Mr Putin's invasion began.

"Then, the war started there," he said. "Now it also started here."

Caught unawares

As with much about Mr Putin's war, the draft caught many Russians unawares. Many had been tuning it out, with polls showing that nearly half of the public was paying little attention to events in Ukraine.

For months, military analysts and Western officials had been predicting that Mr Putin would be forced to impose a draft at some point, given his army's severe losses in Ukraine. But as recently as this week - even as the Russian parliament passed a law that codified a punishment of as much as 10 years in prison for draft dodging - senior officials and the state media insisted that any talk of a draft was part of a Western propaganda campaign.

Then, on Wednesday, Mr Putin announced one, describing it in a morning address to the nation as a necessary measure. The West, he said, was using Ukrainians as a proxy force in a campaign to "weaken, divide and ultimately destroy our country". By nightfall, Russia's conscription machine had swung into action.

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The call-up is being managed by local military commissariats that, according to Russia's defence minister, have some 25 million draft-eligible adults on their rolls. But some 10,000 Russians arrived at military enlistment offices even before being summoned, prompted by Mr Putin's announcement, the military's general staff claimed, according to Interfax, a Russian news agency.

Reports of large numbers of men receiving draft notices arrived from across the country, but regions in Siberia and in the largely Muslim Caucasus Mountains appeared to be among the hardest hit.

On social media, activists in regions such as Kabardino-Balkaria in the Caucasus and Yakutia in northeastern Siberia kept a running tally of the summonses that had arrived in various villages. A woman who has already lost one son in the war told a New York Times reporter that three buses carrying newly mobilised soldiers had left her town in Dagestan, in the Caucasus, one of Russia's poorest regions.

Police officers detaining a man in Novosibirsk, following calls to protest against partial mobilisation, on Sept 21, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

A regional activist in Yakutsk, the capital of the Yakutia region, described draftees being taken by airplane out of remote Arctic villages.

"They have planted panic and fear everywhere," she said in a phone interview, asking that her name be withheld for fear of retribution.

In the Buryatia region, teachers have been tasked with distributing draft notices, according to Mr Vladimir Budaev, an activist with the Free Buryatia Foundation, an anti-war group based abroad. An acquaintance there received his summons at 11pm on Wednesday from a teacher knocking on the door, he said.

Backlash from the people

Despite Russia's challenges on the front line, where Ukrainian troops have often outnumbered Russian soldiers, Mr Putin long resisted declaring a draft because he feared a domestic backlash, analysts say. His authoritarian rule and redoubled crackdown on dissent this year notwithstanding, the Kremlin keeps close tabs on public opinion and has sought to avoid protests.

After Mr Putin's speech on Wednesday, a backlash did indeed burst into the open, though there was no immediate sign of a nationwide anti-draft movement emerging.

In the city of Baksan in the North Caucasus region of Kabardino-Balkaria, more than 100 people gathered near the city administration to protest the conscription of their loved ones, said a local activist who asked his name be withheld for his security.

"Kabardino-Balkaria, like the rest of Russia, woke up yesterday in horror," Mr Ibragim Yaganov, an activist from the region who is now in Poland, told The New York Times. "The war, which was somewhere far away on TV, suddenly came to people's homes."

In Moscow, where OVD-Info reported 538 arrests at anti-war rallies on Wednesday, the authorities came up with a novel way to discourage protests: handing draft summonses to protesters. They did so in at least six Moscow police stations where anti-war protesters were taken, according to OVD-Info.

A protester being taken away by police during a protest in Moscow on Sept 21, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

One protester, Mikhail, 29, said he had been detained for 8.5 hours at a Moscow police station. The Times is withholding his last name for his security. At the station, Mikhail said, an officer wrote him a draft notice, threatening him with jail time if he refused it. He refused it anyway, and went into hiding after being released.

"You're standing there asking yourself whether you should go and fight and die there, or spend 20 years in prison," Mikhail said in an interview. "This is a rather complicated question when you face it directly, a question that you shouldn't be asked like this - especially when you didn't do anything wrong."

In a bid to neutralise discontent, Mr Putin said on Wednesday that those called up would be paid on a par with contract soldiers. Russian news reports said this meant that draftees could make more than US$3,000 (S$4,255) per month, five times the average Russian salary.

While some Russian men were fleeing the prospect of conscription, others seemed resigned to their fate. One correspondent for Novaya Gazeta - the independent newspaper whose licence the Russian government revoked this month - wrote that he did not "want to kill anyone" but that, if drafted, he would do his duty.

"How will I look my parents in the eyes if they send off their younger son and I, the older one, manage to sit it out?" the correspondent, Mr Ivan Zhilin, wrote. "What is my future now? To kill, or to be killed?" NYTIMES

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