More than 1,300 people have been arrested at demonstrations across Russia against President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a partial mobilization of civilians to fight in Ukraine, a police monitoring group said Wednesday.
The OVD-Info monitoring group counted at least 1,332 people detained at rallies in 38 different cities across the country after Putin’s morning address to the nation.
The protests were the largest in Russia since demonstrations that broke out following the announcement of Moscow’s invasion in February.
Putin ordered the risky mobilization after humiliating setbacks for his troops nearly seven months after they invaded Ukraine. The first call-up in Russia since World War II heightened tensions with Ukraine’s Western backers, who derided it as an act of weakness and desperation.
Putin’s mobilization gambit could backfire by making the war unpopular at home and hurting his own standing. It also concedes Russia’s underlying military shortcomings.
The total number of reservists to be called up could be as high as 300,000, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said. However, Putin’s decree authorizing the partial mobilization, which took effect immediately, offered few details, raising suspicions that the draft could be broadened at any moment. Notably, one clause was kept secret.
Despite Russia’s harsh laws against criticizing the military and the war, protesters outraged by the mobilization overcame their fear of arrest to stage protests in cities across the country.
AFP journalists in the center of the Russian capital Moscow said at least 50 people were detained by police wearing anti-riot gear on a main shopping street.
Reporters from the Associated Press in Moscow witnessed at least a dozen arrests in the first 15 minutes of a nighttime protest, with police in heavy body armor tackling demonstrators in front of shops, hauling some away as they chanted, “No to war!”
In Russia’s former imperial capital, Saint Petersburg, police surrounded a small group of protesters and detained them one-by-one, loading them onto a bus.
Protesters were chanting “No mobilization!”
“Everyone is scared. I am for peace and I don’t want to have to shoot. But coming out now is very dangerous, otherwise there would be many more people,” said protester Vasily Fedorov, a student wearing a pacifist symbol on his chest.
“I came out to the rally planning to participate, but it looks like they’ve already arrested everyone. This regime has condemned itself and is destroying its youth,” said Alexei, a 60-year-old resident who declined to give his last name.
Protests in Moscow and St Petersburg today have grown pretty large. People chanting “No to War!” Dozens of arrests reported pic.twitter.com/9F4E5VIy9E
— Matthew Luxmoore (@mjluxmoore) September 21, 2022
“Why are you serving Putin, a man who’s been in power for 20 years!” a young protester shouted at one policeman.
“I came to say that I am against war and mobilization,” Oksana Sidorenko, a student, told AFP.
“Why are they deciding my future for me? I’m scared for myself, for my brother,” she said.
Alina Skvortsova, 20, said she hoped Russians would soon understand the nature of the Kremlin’s offensive in neighboring Ukraine.
“As soon as they really understand, they will come out onto the street, despite the fear,” she said.
In Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, police hauled onto buses some of the 40 protesters who were detained at an anti-war rally. One woman in a wheelchair shouted, referring to the Russian president: “Goddamn bald-headed ‘nut job’. He’s going to drop a bomb on us, and we’re all still protecting him. I’ve said enough.”
— SOTA (@Sota_Vision) September 21, 2022
The Vesna opposition movement called for protests, saying: “Thousands of Russian men — our fathers, brothers and husbands — will be thrown into the meat grinder of the war. What will they be dying for? What will mothers and children be crying for?”
The Interfax news agency quoted the Russian Interior Ministry as saying it had quashed attempts to “organize unauthorized gatherings.”
All the demonstrations were stopped and those who committed “violations” were arrested and led away by police pending an investigation and prosecution, Interfax said.
The state communication watchdog Roskomnadzor warned media that access to their websites would be blocked for transmitting “false information” about the mobilization.
Other Russians responded by trying to leave the country, and flights out quickly became booked and the cost of tickets soared.
In Armenia, Sergey arrived with his 17-year-old son, saying they had prepared for such a scenario. Another Russian, Valery, said his wife’s family lives in Kyiv, and mobilization is out of the question for him “just for the moral aspect alone.”
Residents in Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, appeared despondent about the mobilization as they watched emergency workers clear debris from Russian rocket attacks on two apartment buildings.
“You just don’t know what to expect from him,” said Kharkiv resident Olena Milevska, 66. “But you do understand that it’s something personal for him.”
In calling for the mobilization, Putin cited the length of the front line, which he said exceeds 1,000 kilometers (more than 620 miles). He also said Russia is effectively fighting the combined military might of Western countries.
Western leaders said the mobilization was in response to Russia’s recent battlefield losses.
US President Joe Biden told the UN General Assembly that Putin’s new nuclear threats showed “reckless disregard” for Russia’s responsibilities as a signer of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Hours later, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged world leaders at the gathering to strip Russia of its vote in international institutions and its UN Security Council veto, saying that aggressors need to be punished and isolated.
Speaking by video, Zelenskyy said his forces “can return the Ukrainian flag to our entire territory. We can do it with the force of arms. But we need time.”
Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, said only some of those with relevant combat and service experience will be mobilized. He said about 25 million people fit that criteria, but only about 1% of them will be mobilized.
It wasn’t clear how many years of combat experience or what level of training soldiers must have to be mobilized. Another clause in the decree prevents most professional soldiers from terminating their contracts until after the partial mobilization.
A Ukrainian counteroffensive this month seized the military initiative from Russia and captured large areas in Ukraine from Russian forces.
The Russian mobilization is unlikely to produce any consequences on the battlefield for months because of a lack of training facilities and equipment.