Around 260,000 people have left Russia in the days since its president Vladimir Putin last week announced a national draft. The figure comes from a source that Novaya Gazeta Europe, an independent Russian media site, has in the presidential administration. Thousands more are waiting in kilometres-long queues at Russia’s land borders with countries such as Finland, Georgia and Kazakhstan.
Anti-mobilisation protests – largely led by women – have been reported across the country. In Moscow and St Petersburg, these had been expected and were brutally repressed by authorities. “The police were grabbing elderly women, kids and disabled people,” one attendee of a protest in Moscow on Saturday told me via WhatsApp.
Some of the most spirited demonstrations have taken place far from traditional opposition centres, in ethnic minority republics such as Yakutia and Dagestan (home to a majority Muslim population). Russia’s minorities have borne a disproportionate share of the casualties in the war so far. Inevitably, anecdotal evidence suggests that the burden of conscription is falling hardest on those same areas, with reports of villages in the Arctic Circle being virtually emptied of their men while young Dagestanis are handed conscription summons at markets and checkpoints on federal highways.
In Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, women shouted slogans such as “our children are not fertiliser” at police, who in some cases appeared overwhelmed. In Yakutia, women performed a traditional Yakut dance around police. Reports of the shooting of the head of a draft board in the Siberian town of Ust-Ilimsk today (26 September) further underline how badly conscription is being received in the very areas where the authorities are likely counting on being able to recruit most from.
“The Russian authorities have started to take steps aimed at calming opposition to mobilisation,” said Ben Noble, an associate professor of Russian politics at University College London. “These include reversing drafting decisions for people who should not have been mobilised and providing financial support and guarantees to those who have been mobilised. It’s not clear, however, whether these steps will be enough to dampen the considerable anger seen across the country since Putin’s announcement of a ‘partial mobilisation’ that appears anything but partial.”
Dissatisfaction is only going to increase as Russia’s men experience the organisational prowess of the “second army in the world” for themselves. Despite Putin’s promise that only reservists would be called up, reports abound of people who have never served in the army receiving summons.
Nor is conscription likely to drastically change the balance of power on the battlefield. The mobilised have been sending videos of their rusty weapons and dire living conditions to their loved ones. They will soon be sent to the front after minimal or no preparation as most of the officials who should be responsible for training recruits are either dead or in Ukraine already. Authorities have been issuing draft summons to students arrested at anti-war demonstrations. While this strategy may be the purest distillation of “owning the libs”, it is not the way to build a competent army that will be able to reverse the losses Russia has suffered over the past few weeks.
Russia’s well-honed apparatus of repression may well have the means to suppress this growing dissatisfaction. At the same time, if any policy has the potential to reach a critical mass it is one with the potential to affect the majority of men – and thus the majority of families – disproportionately applied in certain regions.
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