Putin's draft divides families, spurs vows of more protests

As Russia escalates its military campaign against Ukraine, shock over the mobilization is reverberating across the country.

Andriy Andriyenko/AP
A man walks past a destroyed arts school after Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanged missile and artillery barrages in Chasiv Yar, Ukraine, Sept. 22, 2022. In Russia, a mobilization campaign is beginning, splitting families from their sons, husbands, and fathers.

Russia has escalated its military and political campaign to capture Ukrainian territory, rounding up Russian army reservists to fight, preparing votes on annexing occupied areas, and launching new deadly attacks.

A day after President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization to bolster his troops in Ukraine, dramatic scenes of tearful families bidding farewell to men departing from military mobilization centers in Russia appeared on social media.

Video on Twitter from the eastern Siberian city of Neryungri showed men emerging from a stadium. Before boarding buses, the men hugged family members waiting outside, many crying and some covering their mouths with their hands in grief. A man held a child up to the window of one bus for a last look.

In Moscow, women hugged, cried, and made the sign of the cross on men at another mobilization point. A 25-year-old who gave only his first name, Dmitry, received a hug from his father, who told him “Be careful,” as they parted.

Dmitry told Russian media company Ostorozhno Novosti he did not expect to be called up and shipped out so quickly, especially since he still is a student.

“No one told me anything in the morning. They gave me the draft notice that I should come here at 3 p.m. We waited 1.5 hours, then the enlistment officer came and said that we are leaving now,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh great!’ I went outside and started calling my parents, brother, all friends of mine to tell that they take me.”

Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy, in some of his harshest comments so far in the nearly 7-month-old war, lashed out at Russians succumbing to the pressure to serve in their country’s armed forces and those who haven’t spoken out against the war. In his nightly video address, he switched from his usual Ukrainian language into Russian to directly tell Russian citizens they are being “thrown to their deaths.”

“You are already accomplices in all these crimes, murders, and torture of Ukrainians,” Mr. Zelenskyy said, wearing a black T-shirt that said in English: “We Stand with Ukraine,” instead of his signature olive drab T-shirt. He said Russians’ options are to “protest, fight back, run away, or surrender to Ukrainian captivity.”

Western leaders derided Mr. Putin’s mobilization order as an act of weakness and desperation. More than 1,300 Russians were arrested in antiwar demonstrations Wednesday after he issued it, according to the independent Russian human rights group OVD-Info. Organizers said more protests were planned for Saturday.

In Washington, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said the U.S. believes that it will take Russia time to train and equip the new troops and that doing so may not solve command and control, logistics, and morale issues.

Concerns about a potentially wider draft sent some Russians scrambling to buy plane tickets to flee the country, and Mr. Zelenskyy claimed Thursday that the Russian military is preparing to draft up to a million men. A Kremlin spokesman earlier denied such claims.

German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser offered concrete support to potential deserters. She told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that anyone who “courageously opposes Putin’s regime and therefore puts himself in the greatest danger” can apply for asylum in Germany.

In the Kremlin’s territory annexation campaign, pro-Moscow authorities in four Russian-held regions of Ukraine plan voter referendums starting Friday on becoming part of Russia – a move that could expand the war and follows the Kremlin’s playbook from when it annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula after a similar referendum. Most of the world considers the 2014 annexation of Crimea to have been illegal.

Voting on the referendums in Ukraine’s Luhansk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, and Donetsk regions is scheduled to last through Tuesday. Foreign leaders have called the votes illegitimate and nonbinding.

In Luhansk, billboards reading “With Russia Forever” and “Our Choice-Russia” appeared on the streets, while volunteers distributed ribbons in the colors of the Russian national flag and posters reading, “Russia is the future. Participate in the referendum!”

While the hostilities continued, the two sides managed to agree on a major prisoner swap. Ukrainian officials announced the exchange of 215 Ukrainian and foreign fighters – 200 of them for a single person, an ally of Mr. Putin’s. Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, confirmed that pro-Russian Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk, was part of the swap.

Mr. Putin has repeatedly spoken about Mr. Medvedchuk as a victim of political repression. Media reports alleged that before Russia’s invasion, Mr. Medvedchuk was a top candidate for leading a puppet government the Kremlin hoped to install in Ukraine.

Among the freed fighters were Ukrainian defenders of a steel plant in Mariupol during a long Russian siege, along with 10 foreigners, including five British citizens and two U.S. military veterans, who had fought with Ukrainian forces. Some of those freed had faced death sentences in Russian-occupied areas.

A video on the BBC news website Thursday showed two of the released British men, Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, speaking inside a plane while en route home.

“We just want to let everyone know that we’re now out of the danger zone and we’re on our way home to our families,” Mr. Aslin said in the video, as Mr. Pinner added: “By the skin of our teeth.”

The continuation of Russian missile attacks and beginning of a partial mobilization of Russians into the armed forces suggested the Kremlin was seeking to dispel any notion of weakness or waning determination to achieve its wartime aims in light of recent battlefield losses and other setbacks.

This story was reported by the Associated Press 

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