Russia’s recent mobilisation resulted in tens of thousands of potential draftees protesting or fleeing for the country’s borders in the 31st week of the war in Ukraine, exposing dissent in Russian society and weakening President Vladimir Putin.
Just under 100,000 Russians crossed into Kazakhstan since the mobilisation announcement on September 21, the Kazakh interior ministry said – three times the average weekly rate this year, which has itself been 70 percent higher than in previous years.
The Finnish border guard reported that flows of Russians with European Union visas rapidly rose from about 3,000 Russian arrivals a day before September 20 to between 7,000 and 8,000 afterward.
Exiled independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta estimated the number of those who had fled Russia following the mobilisation at more than 250,000.
George Pagoulatos, director of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, a think-tank in Athens, told Al Jazeera that the exodus was a blow to Russia’s Putin.
“[Putin] was hoping he could conclude this ‘special military operation’ without having to rely on conscripts, and in a short time period. Now he has been forced to bring the war to Russian households,” he said. “This is the first moment we see the backlash on the part of public opinion.”
At least 2,400 anti-war protesters were arrested in demonstrations across Russia, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. It was reported that many of those arrested were handed draft notices by the authorities.
First-year cadets at the Kuznetsov Naval Academy in St Petersburg protested when they were told they would be mobilised after just one month’s training, according to Ukraine’s military intelligence. The cadets have reportedly been moved from barracks and kept under surveillance to prevent them from contacting their parents.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said about 1,000 subpoenas had been issued to men of fighting age in Sevastopol, annexed Crimea, who were threatened with criminal prosecution if they failed to enlist.
Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, who has sent three battalions into Ukraine, has reportedly refused to mobilise further troops.
“[Protests] are not negligible given the very hard regime [Putin] subjects protesters to – we have seen people being beaten badly or disappearing,” Pagoulatos said.
“So these people are really taking a risk, which is another indication of the intensity of discomfort and anger that is accumulating in Russian society.”
Putin has attempted to allay the anger of many Russian voters by recruiting intensively in poorer, non-Slavic republics.
Ukraine’s Centre for Countering Misinformation, a branch of the country’s National Security and Defence Council, said Russia was expending disproportionate mobilisation efforts in the non-Slavic republic of Buryatia, in Russia’s far east. There, the centre said, men aged 18-72 were being sent summonses, or drafted off the street. In the village of Kurumkan, 700 men were mobilised out of a total population of 5,500.
Minna Ålander, a research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Relations, told Al Jazeera that the rate at which Russians were claiming asylum in Finland since mobilisation has jumped elevenfold and that the exodus has prompted a debate on humanitarianism versus security in many countries.
“Germany seems to consider a simplified asylum procedure for Russian conscripts, while Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland view a large number of Russian draft dodgers as a potential security threat for two reasons: because not necessarily all of them actually oppose Putin (or even the war as such) and because Russia has a track record of using its citizens in other countries as a pretext for aggression against those countries,” Ålander said.
So far, humanitarianism seems to be winning out on Russia’s borders.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said of Russian emigrants: “Most of them were forced to leave by the desperate situation. We must take care of them and ensure their safety. This is a political and humanitarian matter.”
But Russia has potentially some 20 million reservists to call on, prompting the counter-argument that the draft pool in Russia is simply too large for the sheltering of draft dodgers to make a difference on the battlefield, says Ålander.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said newly drafted Russians had already arrived on the front lines, with little or no training – something Ukraine’s General Staff also claimed.
Nonaligned countries joined the Western alliance in criticism of the war after Putin’s mobilisation. India’s Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jayashankar said, “the trajectory of the Ukraine conflict is a matter of profound concern for the international community”, and insisted that “egregious attacks committed in broad daylight” should not go unpunished.
Brazilian Foreign Minister Carlos Alberto Franco Franca said the war “endangers the lives of innocent civilians and jeopardises the food and energy security of millions of families in other regions”.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi reaffirmed his country’s support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity in a meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, an indirect criticism of Putin’s war.
World leaders gathering at the 77th UN General Assembly in New York City overruled a Russian objection to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy becoming the only world leader allowed to address the body remotely.
United States National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Putin’s mobilisation was a sign of weakness.
“What Putin has done is not exactly a sign of strength or confidence; frankly, it’s a sign that they’re struggling badly on the Russian side,” Sullivan said in an interview with the CBS news programme Face the Nation.
On September 27, Russia said the four Ukrainian regions it largely occupies – Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia and Kherson – had voted overwhelmingly for annexation by Russia in referendums. The approval rates were in the 80th and 90th percentile, and turnout was well over 70 percent, said Russia.
European Union and US officials have called these “sham” referendums. They have said they will not recognise the results because the regions are under occupation and in a state of war.
Luhansk Governor Haidai said Russian pollsters were issuing passports in return for “yes” votes to a referendum on annexing the region to Russia.
In the devastated port of Mariupol, Ukraine’s military intelligence said that occupation officials went door-to-door, forcing households that received humanitarian aid to vote.
Ukraine’s Centre for Countering Misinformation also reported other irregularities. In Kherson, a single family member would typically be asked to fill in several ballots for absent family members. In Enerhodar, the city housing workers at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, ballots were reportedly brought door-to-door by armed men and filled in at gunpoint.
Ukraine’s nuclear plant administrator, Energoatom, said plant workers were overwhelmingly against the annexation of the Zaporizhia region, so Russian troops (of whom there are 4,500 at the plant) dressed up as workers and mingled with the real staff during a shift change, speaking in favour of the Russian occupation to Russian media who were present. They then, reportedly, cast ballots in favour of annexation.
Throughout the week, Ukrainian counteroffensives continued to claw back territory. In Kharkiv, Ukrainian forces moved well east of the Oskil River, creating enclaves of liberated settlements north and south of Lyman in the Donetsk region, and suggesting recapturing of the city is only a matter of time.
Ukraine also said it has liberated 59 settlements in the southern region of Kherson since the start of its counteroffensive on August 29.
Ukraine’s armed forces were continuing to corrode Russian fighting capacity by striking ammunition and equipment concentrations. Sometime between September 17 and 23, they destroyed two ammunition warehouses, they said, without specifying where.
On September 25, Ukraine’s forces in Kherson destroyed two ammunition warehouses and struck crossing points across the Dnieper River at Nova Kakhovka, Ukraine said.