Moscow began its mobilization of additional troops on Thursday to bolster its offensive in Ukraine , after authorities announced that thousands of people had come forward voluntarily, and despite many Russians fleeing the country to avoid being forced to fight.
In images spread on social networks after President Vladimir Putin ordered the mobilization of reservists the day before, hundreds of Russian citizens can be seen responding to military calls.
The call-up follows severe setbacks for Russian forces in September following the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the north-east and east of the country. It also coincides with votes for annexation to Russia in several Ukrainian territories controlled by Moscow.
The Russian military said Thursday that nearly 10,000 people had volunteered in the past 24 hours to be mobilized.
Russia said on Friday it was exempting some bankers, IT workers and journalists from being drafted into the military.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Wednesday that Russia would seek to recruit an additional 300,000 troops for Russia’s war in Ukraine, which the Kremlin refers to as “partial mobilization.”
The section of the official decree announcing the mobilization and including the number of people to be recruited was kept classified and not published, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov told reporters.
The Russian Defense Ministry said some employees working in critically important industries would be excluded from recruitment in an attempt to “guarantee the work of specific high-tech industries, as well as Russia’s financial system.”
The exceptions apply to some IT, telecommunications and financial professionals, as well as some employees of “systemically important” media outlets and interdependent vendors, including registered media outlets and broadcasters.
Russia classifies large employers and major companies in certain sectors as “systemically important” if they meet certain thresholds in terms of headcount, revenue or annual tax payments.
The classification allows companies to obtain special benefits from the Kremlin, such as government-backed loans, bailouts and state investments, which recently happened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Media outlets previously classified as such include several state television channels, radio stations, news agencies and newspapers, as well as some of Russia’s few private media outlets.
The Ministry of Defense said that the heads of the companies must draw up lists of their employees who meet the criteria and can be excluded from the mobilization.
“Protest or Surrender”
Defiantly, the Ukrainian president, Volodimir Zelenski, urged the Russians to “protest” against the mobilization or to “surrender”.
“55,000 Russian soldiers have died in this war in six months (…) Do you want more? Nope? So protest! Fight! Run away! Or surrender,” he said in Russian in a video message. “These are your survival options,” he added.
In a speech to the nation the day before, Putin ordered the partial mobilization of reservists and said he was willing to use “all means” in his arsenal against the West, whom he accuses of wanting to “destroy” Russia.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged the international community on Thursday to hold Russia accountable at a UN Security Council meeting on abuses in Ukraine.
“We cannot let President Putin get away with it,” said the head of US diplomacy.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rejected the accusations and called for the Western-backed government in kyiv to be punished instead.
“The United States and its allies, with the collusion of international human rights organizations, have been covering up the crimes of the kyiv regime,” Lavrov replied.
This diplomatic confrontation coincides with the “referendums” that, from Friday to Tuesday, will carry out four Ukrainian regions under total or partial control of Moscow to be annexed by Russia.
Despite the outrage aroused in the West, the pro-Russian authorities installed in these territories reiterated that the trials were going to take place.
“The vote starts tomorrow and nothing can prevent it,” Vladimir Saldo, head of the occupation administration for the Kherson region, told Russian television.
The electoral entity of the pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk reported that “for security reasons”, the consultation would be organized almost door to door, “in front of the houses”, for four days and the electoral centers would only open “on the last day”, the September 27th.
Former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and current number two of the country’s Security Council repeated on Telegram that the regions of Lugansk, Donetsk — in the east —, Kherson and Zaporizhia — in the south — “will integrate Russia.”
And then he stated that his country was prepared to launch a nuclear attack against the West if necessary: “Russian hypersonic missiles are capable of reaching their targets in Europe and the United States much faster” than Western weapons.
Russian military doctrine foresees the possibility of resorting to nuclear attacks if the territories considered Russian by Moscow are attacked, which could be the case of the annexed areas.
On the ground, the bombing continues.
Nine missiles fell on the city of Zaporizhia, in southern Ukraine, under Ukrainian control, and according to local authorities they hit a hotel and caused at least one death.
Donetsk separatists (east) accused kyiv of bombing a market, killing six people. The local press broadcast images of a burnt-out bus and a corpse on the road.
“I don’t want to die”
Russia confirmed the arrival of 55 prisoners of war exchanged with Ukraine, in the largest exchange since the beginning of the invasion.
President Zelensky welcomed the release of 215 Ukrainians, including chiefs of the defense of the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, in the southeast, a symbol of the Ukrainian resistance and that Moscow describes as “neo-Nazis”.
But many of these prisoners were “brutally tortured” during their captivity and “absolutely all of them” “need psychological rehabilitation”, several senior officials in kyiv said.
In Russia, the announcement of the mobilization sparked multiple demonstrations across the country, and at least 1,332 people were arrested.
Many media also reported that there was an avalanche of attempts to leave the country.
In nearby Armenia, at the Yerevan airport, Russians admitted fleeing the mobilization. Dmitri, 45, with a small bag in his hand, explained that he had left his wife and children in the country.
“I do not want to die in this senseless war. It is a fratricidal war,” he assured, preserving his anonymity.
In Finland, the authorities have seen a significant increase in the number of Russians crossing their border and they expect the number to continue to grow.
The number of Russians who entered the day before was more than double the number who arrived last week, border agents were quoted as saying by Reuters.
“This morning there are still a lot of people, … maybe it has increased a little compared to yesterday,” said a spokesman for the border guard.
Max, a 21-year-old Russian student who did not want to give his last name, said he was going to Finland to catch a flight to Germany to visit relatives.
“Technically, I am a student so I shouldn’t be afraid of being recruited, but we have seen that things are changing very quickly so I assume there is a chance,” he told Reuters after crossing the border at Vaalimaa.
“I just want to be safe,” he said.
Some 7,000 people entered from Russia on Thursday, some 6,000 of them Russian, marking a 107% increase compared to the same day a week earlier, according to border guards.
Three people had applied for asylum on Thursday. None had done so the week before, he said.
Finnish land border crossings have remained among the few entry points into Europe for Russians after a number of countries closed both their physical borders and their airspace to Russian aircraft in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
At Vaalimaa, the busiest crossing point, cars queued up to 400 meters on Friday, a longer queue than the day before, according to a border official.
Faced with this stampede, Germany said it was ready to welcome deserters from the Russian army “threatened with serious repression.”