President Vladimir Putin’s surprise project to bolster his invasion of Ukraine faced mounting resistance across Russia on Friday as villagers, activists and even some elected officials asked why the conscription campaign appears to be hitting minorities and rural areas harder than big cities.
Some of the greatest suffering occurred hundreds or thousands of miles from the front line, in the mountains of the Caucasus and the northeastern region of Yakutia, a sparsely populated region that straddles the Arctic Circle. Community leaders described remote villages where much of the working-age male population had received conscription notices in recent days, leaving families on the land without men to work before the long winter.
“We have deer herders, hunters, and hunters — we have a few of them anyway,” Vyacheslav Shadrin, head of the Senate of a small indigenous group known as the Yukagir, said in a phone interview. “But they are the ones who are being crafted more than anything else.”
Putin announced the recall on Wednesday, calling it a “partial mobilization” necessary to confront Ukraine and its Western backers, who he said seek to destroy Russia. It was a step long overdue, even as supporters of the war demanded military conscription to allow Russia to ramp up its offensive.
Defense officials have said Russia will mobilize around 300,000 civilians, with an emphasis on men with military experience and special skills, although some Russian media now operating outside the country have reported that the number could be much higher.
But by Friday, even some hard-line commentators who had been urging the draft constitution were criticizing the inclusive and unequal way in which it appears to be being rolled out. A popular pro-war blog on Telegram, Rybar, described receiving “huge numbers of stories” about people with health issues or no combat experience to get draft notices, even when some volunteers were turned down.
The hawks warned that instead of aiding the Russian war effort, chaotic recruitment could end up hurting it. Some said that the military officials who carried out the order were more interested in formally carrying out the orders than in winning the war.
“If we are mobilizing, it should be the basis for strengthening the army,” Andrei Medvedev, a Moscow legislator and state TV presenter, wrote on Telegram. “It is not the cause of the unrest.”
In Yakutia, an association representing the region’s main ethnic group, Sakha, warned that conscription could have serious consequences there. The group distributed a letter to Mr. Putin saying that the mobilization could lead to “the erosion of the male component in the already sparsely populated northern regions of Yakutia”.
Even a Russian parliamentarian representing the region, Sardana Vyksentyeva, wrote on social media on Thursday that she had heard about a village of 300 people where 47 men had been summoned.
What is the logic of these numbers? I asked, emphasizing that people in rural areas are being recruited at a higher rate than in cities. “What proportion are we talking about?”
Signs of turmoil emerged as soon as Putin announced the draft, though he described it as only “partial”. All segments of society seem to have been affected to some degree – shattering the sense of normalcy that the Kremlin sought to maintain within Russia during the first seven months of the war. A new wave of Russians have packed flights, cars and buses out of the country. Kommersant newspaper reported that Russian companies, including airlines, technology companies and agricultural companies, were concerned about how the recall would affect them.
Amid these questions, the Defense Ministry said that Russian men who hold certain white-collar jobs in banking and information and communications technology will not be called upon to join the war effort. In Parliament, lawmakers promised to give recruits a break from paying off loans and ask employers to keep their jobs.
Despite all this improvisation, the Kremlin seemed to be aware of the political risks of sending civilians into service. Analysts say that Putin postponed the announcement of military enlistment, despite the widespread shortage of manpower for the army and heavy losses, for fear of a local reaction.
And remote areas, minorities and rural areas appeared to be hit the hardest, at least at first. This is because remote areas and marginalized groups were seen as less likely to protest, said Kirill Shamev, who studies Russian civil-military relations at Central European University in Vienna.
“The Kremlin is doing what it has been doing forever,” he said. Its first candidate is to preserve Vladimir Putin’s power in Russia. That is why the number of people called up for service is much higher in districts, rural areas and small towns.”
However, he said, the Kremlin’s “obey or suppress” approach could backfire when recruits return from the front lines to tell their communities the truth about the war.
“The risks to Vladimir Putin personally have increased significantly,” he said, because the army and the defense sector “have become the essential elements of the Kremlin’s legitimacy.”
Interviews with people in three regions of Russia’s predominantly Muslim Caucasus Mountains indicated widespread fear of mobilization. In Chechnya, a small business owner described seeing a few men on the streets of Grozny, the capital, and said the mosque, which was usually overflowing on Fridays, was a third empty.
In Kabardino-Balkaria, a local activist reported that one village of 2,500 people had recruited 38 people, and that there was talk of young men who had injured themselves to avoid conscription. But few people were protesting, he said, because civic life had been virtually eliminated.
And in Ingushetia, a Russian officer said he was trying to avoid going to Ukraine.
“People are close to panic,” he said. “Police stop cars and hand out recruitment notices.”
Everyone spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. Ruslan Totrov, a journalist from the Caucasus region of North Ossetia now based in Dubai, said the recruitment had become a “reality check” for people who supported the war from afar.
“Once this suddenly starts affecting your relatives, loved ones and acquaintances, there is a natural and human defensive reaction,” he said. “The first question that many, many people are starting to ask is: Why?”
In isolated Yakutia settlements, which often lack high-speed Internet, Russian state television remains the most important source of news for many. Mr Shadrin, the leader of the Yukagir community, described members of his indigenous group – scattered in small villages across the vast area – as largely pro-Kremlin. But after receiving panicked phone calls from moms this week, he suggested that might change.
Mr. Shadrin said Mr. Putin’s support was “off the charts” in rural Yakutia. “Now I think a wake-up process is starting to happen.”
He said that in one of the reindeer herding establishments, four of the twenty shepherds had already been recruited. He said that among the Yokgir, he already knew of seven summoned men, and he expected the number to rise as the hunters and shepherds returned to their villages and received summons. He said the total population of Yukagir is about 1,600, including only 400 men between the ages of 18 and 45.
Several community organizations have published open letters calling for the draft to be suspended for ethnic minorities in the region, asserting that even in World War II, the indigenous population of the Soviet Union in the Arctic was not mobilized because there were so few of them.
“Our villages are small and every man is worth his weight in gold,” Ivan Shamayev, head of the Sakha conference and signer of one message, said in a telephone interview. “Villages will find it difficult to survive without men, which is why they need to know.”
What was most shocking to residents of the area, many said in interviews, was that the recruitment came at a time when families were struggling to prepare for winter. Like much of Siberia, Yakutia has been significantly reshaped by climate change, with rapidly rising temperatures thawing permafrost and contributing to devastating floods.
Warning messages about mobilization were circulated on WhatsApp. A local activist made many of the pleas for help she received. One was from a woman in Verkhoyansk, a region in Siberia where temperatures can dip to minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit. She wrote that her son had not finished repairing the floors of her home that had to be removed after the summer flood.
The woman wrote: “He has two young children, the wife is pregnant, I just had an operation.” “I have no idea how to get through winter.”
The activist, who requested that her name be withheld for her own security, said Yakuts were watching the war on television and knowing Mr. Putin’s argument was a war to protect their country. But so far, they were all very abstract.
“They say on TV that this is about defending the homeland,” she said. “But the threat now is not so much to the homeland as it is to our lives.”
Alina LobzinaAnd the Ivan Nikiburnko And the Valerie Hopkins Contribute to the preparation of reports.