The move comes as the Kremlin stages referendums in the occupied regions of Ukraine weeks after suffering battlefield setbacks.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree toughening penalties for voluntary surrender to enemy forces, desertion and refusal to fight by up to 10 years in prison, just days after ordering a partial mobilisation of 300,000 reservists to fight in Ukraine.
The move came on a day Moscow replaced its top logistics general after a series of setbacks to its seven-month war in Ukraine. “Army General Dmitry Bulgakov has been relieved of the post of deputy minister of defence” and will be replaced by Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev, aged 60, the defence ministry said on Saturday.
Russia’s invasion, launched on February 24, and Ukraine’s recent gains have laid bare flaws, with some analysts seeing logistics as the weak link in Moscow’s army.
Russia’s mandatory military draft has sparked protests and forced military-age men to flee Russia, with outbound flights full and neighbouring countries receiving large influxes, including Georgia where 2,300 private vehicles were waiting to enter at one crossing, regional Russian authorities said.
Street protests continued on Saturday, with authorities detaining more than 700 demonstrators in 32 cities across Russia, according to the independent monitoring group OVD-Info.
A separate law, also signed on Saturday, facilitates Russian citizenship for foreigners who enlist in the Russian army for at least a year, bypassing the normal requirement for five years of residency in the country.
This measure seems primarily aimed at Central Asian migrants from former Soviet republics, who are typically hired for strenuous, low-paying jobs.
Prior to the law coming into effect, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan had warned their citizens not to take part in any armed conflicts.
The amendments come as Kremlin-held regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, and Kherson and Zaporizhia in the south, vote for a second day on becoming part of Russia.
Moscow could then consider any military move on the occupied regions as an attack on its own territory.
Putin this week warned that Moscow would use “all means” to protect its territory, which former Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev said on social media could include the use of “strategic nuclear weapons”.
On Friday, US President Joe Biden dismissed as a “sham” the voting on whether Russia should annex four regions of Ukraine, which ends on Tuesday.
Even Beijing, Moscow’s closest ally since the war began, called for the respect of “sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in an address at the UN General Assembly urged Russia and Ukraine not to let the effects of their war “spill over” and called for a diplomatic resolution.
“We call on all parties concerned to keep the crisis from spilling over and to protect the legitimate rights and interests of developing countries,” Wang said on Saturday.
G7 nations declared the polls will “never” be recognised and have “no legal effect or legitimacy”.
UN investigators on Friday accused Russia of committing war crimes on a “massive scale” in Ukraine – listing bombings, executions, torture and horrific sexual violence.