From Moscow to deepest Siberia, Russian men of fighting age are scrambling to flee the country after President Putin announced that military reservists would be deployed to Ukraine. For some, it is already too late.
“I’ve said goodbye to my wife and daughter,” Sergei, 49, said after he was drafted by officials in Buryatia, a remote region in eastern Siberia. “People ask me where I’m going. I tell them I’m heading to the front.”
Putin’s announcement on Wednesday of a nationwide mobilisation has sent shockwaves through Russia and prompted the biggest protests since the early days of the war. Despite a pledge by Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister, that only men with combat experience would be called up to fight, military recruitment officials are apparently seeking to draft anyone who falls into their clutches.
“Summonses [to report at draft centres] are handed out to everyone the authorities can reach,” said Alexander Cherkasov, head of the Memorial human rights centre in Moscow, which was recently banned by the Kremlin.
Officials in Buryatia, one of Russia’s poorest regions, began giving draft papers to men early yesterday, knocking on their doors at 4am. By 10am, the men were at military recruitment centres, where they were issued with cursory instructions on how to survive on the battlefield. “You need to learn how to bandage yourselves, to provide first aid, because people die from elementary blood loss,” a military official told them, according to video posted by the Baikal-Journal website.
Alexandra Garmazhapova, an anti-war activist, said thousands of people were fleeing Buryatia to Mongolia, 380 miles away, to avoid the draft. “Buryatia saw one of the most terrifying nights in its history,” she said. “People are panicking because this is full-scale mobilisation. Students, men aged over 60, and men who are the sole carers for disabled children are being called up. This the result of Putin’s rule: people are simply leaving the country.”
In Moscow, Viktor Bugreyev, 32, an IT specialist with Sberbank, the state bank, said he received his draft papers at 10am yesterday and was ordered to report for military service by 3pm. “I’ve never served in the army,” he told the Mediazona website. “But what can I do? I have to go.”
Social media videos showed men saying tearful goodbyes to their families across Russia. “Come back soon,” said one woman as she hugged her husband in Yakutia, northeast Siberia. Shoigu told state television that Russia would call up 300,000 men for the war, but Putin’s mobilisation order makes no mention of any limits on numbers, or even who is eligible for the draft. The Kremlin confirmed that one section of the order had been classified, but it denied a report by Novaya Gazeta, an exiled opposition newspaper, that Putin was seeking to mobilise up to one million men.
As rumours spread that Russia’s borders will be closed to men of fighting age, some are trying to leave by air, scrambling to secure flights before they sell out or become too expensive. Others are heading by land to Georgia or Armenia, two small countries in the Caucasus region that do not require visas from Russians.
There was a long line of vehicles waiting to cross into Georgia yesterday morning, with Russian border guards said to be turning some men back. One channel on the Telegram messaging app for people seeking to flee to Georgia has 75,000 members. “Who can take me to Georgia?” wrote Denis, a young Russian man. “I’m on my own. Just me and my backpack.”
The options for those seeking to escape the war are running out. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which all border Russia, have said they will not provide asylum to people fleeing conscription. Finland has said it will close its borders to Russians over security concerns.
However, Germany said yesterday that Russian refugees would be accepted. “Anyone who hates Putin’s path and loves liberal democracy is welcome in Germany,” Marco Buschmann, the justice minister, wrote on Twitter.
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, countered that reports of Russians fleeing the country in large numbers were “very exaggerated”. Putin and senior officials had assured Russians on 15 occasions that there were no plans to introduce nationwide mobilisation. On March 8, International Women’s Day, Putin promised citizens there was no reason for them to worry that their loved ones would be deployed to Ukraine. “There will not be an additional call up of reservists,” he said. “Only professional soldiers are carrying out the tasks that have been set.”
On Wednesday evening almost 1,400 people were arrested at protests that took place in 38 towns and cities across Russia. In Moscow, some of the protesters were handed draft papers in the police stations they were taken to. “It was only to be expected that officials would start using mobilisation to put pressure on the protesters,” said Pavel Chikov, a human rights lawyer.
In Chechnya, where large groups of young men were seen being taken to draft offices yesterday morning, a Muslim mufti condemned Ramzan Kadyrov, the region’s Kremlin-backed leader. “You are urging young men to paradise, but you do not want to go there yourself,” Salakh Mezhiev said. “You do not want to die. You want to lie in the warmth and eat tasty food.”
About 150 women and children took to the streets of Grozny, the Chechen capital. Such dissent are extremely rare in Chechnya, where critics of the regime are regularly tortured or killed.
There were arson attacks on at least three military recruitment centres after Putin announced the draft. More protests are planned for Saturday.
Opposition activists are describing Putin’s mobilisation — mobilizatsiya in Russian — as moGilizatsiya, a play on the word mogila, which means grave. “I was ready to take part in the war only if my country was attacked, not for the imperial ambitions of Putin,” said Alexander, a young man from Ufa, 700 miles east of Moscow, who is seeking to flee to Istanbul. If he manages to evade conscription, he will be joining the thousands of Russians who have moved to Turkey since the invasion began.