Russians are adjusting to the reality of President Vladimir Putin’s sweeping mobilization even as authorities in four occupied Ukrainian regions continue annexation votes derided by Kyiv and its allies as shams.
For millions largely shielded from the reality of the Kremlin’s bloody seven-month war, Putin’s speech on Wednesday — announcing a “partial mobilization” targeting 300,000 additional men — came as a shock.
Some men fearing conscription have been fleeing the country by plane or car, while others have gone to ground to hide from potential draft notices. Others, though, have no choice but to accept the new reality.
Countries bordering Russia, from Finland and the Baltic states to Georgia and Kazakhstan, are reporting increased vehicle traffic. Airline tickets are fully sold out for days at record prices.
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“When you see tickets to Istanbul for 1 million rubles ($17,200), it is mind-boggling. I saw it with my own eyes. This is madness,” said Grigory, 33, a manager who works in the financial sector in Moscow.
“It was nearly impossible to find tickets before Sept. 27 at normal price. This date is psychologically important for many because referendums in Donbas end on this day,” he said.
Some countries, including Poland and the Baltic states, have said they won’t offer asylum or humanitarian visas to Russians trying to flee Putin’s latest mobilization — only to those who’ve consistently demonstrated a position against the war.
Ivan, 23, of Russia waits as Finnish border guards check his family’s car at the border check point in Virolahti, Finland, on Sunday
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Grigory’s comment shows that Russians are well aware of the votes under way in Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. The referenda mark a new escalation in the war.
Grigory has chosen to hang on for now and try to fly out in October after his employer offered relocation to Eastern Europe. Before that, he plans to limit trips outside of his home and avoid public transport so as not to get the mobilization notice. He and others interviewed declined to give their full names for security reasons.
The Russian votes, condemned by the UN, the G-7 and other allies of Ukraine, started Friday and are expected to run through Tuesday. Armed soldiers are reportedly standing guard near occupation officials as they go door to door to collect ballots. Troops from the Chechen Republic are providing security at some polling places in Energodar, according to their leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.
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Many fear military escalation shortly after the votes. Putin said in his speech he was ready to use Russia’s entire military arsenal — including nuclear weapons — to protect the “territorial integrity of our country,” with the implication that this could include its newly-seized regions once annexed to Russia.
Leaving Russia is still relatively easy as men, even of draft age, can travel until they receive a mobilization notice in person.
Still, border controls have become more challenging. Men now face questions about their military status at the border.
Thus Fedor, 36, who works in the movie industry in Moscow, said he and dozens of other draft-age men were held for over two hours at the land border with Estonia on Thursday. Border officers took away passports for a time, and asked questions about whether the men had served in the army, and had any military specialization.
Those who had served in the past were held even longer, but all were allowed to go later, Fedor said. Similar interrogation happens in the airports, according to multiple witnesses.
Only 29% of Russians hold passports, according to state pollster VTsIOM. Many have nowhere to go if they were to leave, and don’t have the money to fund a long stay out of the country. So some are traveling within Russia in a bid to outrun potential draft notices.
Sergey, 44, a businessman from Lipetsk in central Russia, said he’s moved for now to his “dacha,” or summer cottage, which has no official address. He’s not taking phone calls from unknown numbers, and plans to basically keep a low profile.
Protests over mobilization were held across Russia on Sept. 21, following Putin’s mobilization order, and some draft offices were set on fire. Demonstrations continued in St. Petersburg and Moscow on Saturday.
To be sure, there are many Russians who’ve either accepted the potential they’ll be mobilized or are prepared to join up voluntarily. Russia has offered salaries for draftees equal to those that contracted military staff gets, which is several times the Russian average.
Some shops that sell military gear say there’s been a spike in demand for warm underwear and other supplies as autumn weather closes in.
“They buy tactical equipment, clothes, shoes, backpacks,” the manager of an army surplus store in Chelyabinsk, in Russia’s Ural region, said by phone.
The first days of mobilization have bordered on chaotic. Some regions ordered all men who might potentially be called up to not leave. Others, like Moscow, had no restrictions. The Tatarstan and Samara regions first imposed and then removed restrictions.
Mobilization is also under way in Crimea, annexed by Moscow in 2014, and in other currently occupied territories, where men are given Russian passports upon being drafted.
Some 90% of the men drafted from Crimea have been ethnic Tatars, Turkic-speaking Muslims who’ve lived in Crimea for centuries, according to the NGO Crimea SOS. About 5,000 Tatars had been contacted following Putin’s mobilization call through Thursday, the group said, without saying how it reached the figure.
Russia hasn’t disclosed the ethnicity or other demographic parameters of those mobilized.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Friday urged Ukrainian men to “hide from the Russian mobilization by any means.”
“I have a simple request to all our people in the temporarily occupied territory: do the main thing — save your lives and help us weaken and destroy the occupiers,” he said.
Zelenskiy said any Ukrainians pulled into Putin’s army should “sabotage any activity of the enemy, hinder any Russian operations, provide us with any important information about the occupiers — their bases, headquarters, warehouses with ammunition.”