Moscow began a mandatory troop call-up on Thursday in a bid to bolster a faltering war effort in Ukraine, where authorities said thousands had volunteered even as Russian men fled the country to avoid being forced to fight.
Amateur footage has been circulating on social media since President Vladimir Putin ordered reservists to mobilize on Wednesday, purportedly showing hundreds of Russian citizens across the country responding to military summons.
The recall came as Moscow-controlled regions of Ukraine will vote in the coming days on whether to become part of Russia in referendums that Kyiv and its allies have called an illegal land grab.
Moscow took these steps after Ukrainian forces regained control of most of the northeastern region of Kharkiv, which was seen as a potential turning point in the stalemate’s seven-month war.
The Russian military said Thursday that at least 10,000 people volunteered to fight in the 24 hours since the order was issued, but that the men also rushed to leave Russia before they were obligated to join.
“I don’t want to go to war,” a man named Dmitriy, who had traveled to Armenia with only one small suitcase, told AFP.
“I don’t want to die in this senseless war. This is a fratricidal war.”
On Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on Russians to resist the partial mobilization announced by President Vladimir Putin, which sparked protests and a new mass exodus outside the country.
“55,000 Russian soldiers were killed in these six months of the war…” Zelensky said in his daily speech.
“Do you want more? No? Then protest. Fight. Run. Or surrender” to the Ukrainian army.
“You are really complicit in all these crimes, murders and torture against Ukrainians. Because you have been silent. Because you are silent,” Zelensky added.
“And now it’s time for you to make a choice: for men in Russia, this is a choice to die or live, to become disabled or to maintain one’s health.
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky. source: AAP / Ukrinform / abaca / ba
“For women in Russia, the choice is to lose their husbands, children and grandchildren forever, or continue to protect them from death, from war, from one person (Putin),” he continued.
More than 1,300 people were arrested in demonstrations across Russia on Wednesday after a partial mobilization was announced.
There were also reports of mass exodus after the announcement.
Flights from Russia to neighboring countries that allow Russians to enter without a visa were almost completely booked, while prices have risen significantly.
The Kremlin on Thursday dismissed as “false” reports that Russians qualified to mobilize were rushing out.
Men of military age made up the majority of those who arrived on the last flight from Moscow at the Armenian airport and many were reluctant to speak up.
Yerevan has become a major destination for fleeing Russians since the war began on February 24, sparking fierce international opposition aimed at isolating Russia.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on Thursday demanded that Putin be held accountable for confronting Russia at a Security Council session, where the United Nations labeled abuses in Ukraine.
“We cannot – and will not – let President Putin get away with it,” Mr. Blinken told the Security Council in a special session during the leaders’ meeting at the United Nations.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – whom Mr. Blinkin has refused to meet individually since the invasion in February – has criticized Western accusations.
“There is an attempt today to impose a completely different narrative about Russian aggression as the origin of this tragedy,” Lavrov told the Security Council.
Russian police officers arrest a protester during an unauthorized rally on September 21. source: GT / (Contributor Photo/Getty Images)
Lavrov was in the council room only to deliver his speech at the meeting of the 15-member body, which was attended by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Lavrov did not listen to anyone else’s words.
“I noticed today that Russian diplomats are adequately fleeing like Russian troops,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told the Security Council meeting on accountability in Ukraine.
The council, which has been meeting on Ukraine for at least the 20th time this year, has been unable to take meaningful action because Russia is a permanent member with veto power along with the United States, France, Britain and China.
Lavrov accused Kyiv of threatening Russia’s security and “brazenly trampling” on the rights of Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine, adding that all this “simply confirms that the decision to conduct the special military operation was inevitable.”
“The volume of lies coming from Russian diplomats is very extraordinary,” said Ukrainian Mr. Kuleba.
Lavrov said countries that supply Ukraine with weapons and train its soldiers were parties to the conflict, adding that “the deliberate provocation of this conflict by the collective West remained unpunished.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov leaves after speaking at the UN Security Council meeting on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. source: GT / (Photo by Brian R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images)
The standoff escalated on the diplomatic stage as officials installed by the Kremlin in Ukrainian regions controlled by Russian forces on Thursday vowed to press ahead with this week’s annexation elections.
Four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine – Donetsk and Luhansk in the east and Kherson and Zaporizhzhya in the south – announced that they would hold voting over a five-day period, starting Friday.
Vladimir Saldo, the Moscow-appointed president of Kherson, who fell early in the Russian invasion, said the referendum would go ahead in his region regardless of the criticism.
“The date has been set. We have the green light. The voting will start tomorrow and nothing can prevent that,” he told Russian state media.
“People have been waiting and demanding that this vote take place soon,” he added.
Western leaders meeting in New York this week unanimously condemned the vote.
Speaking at the United Nations, US President Joe Biden accused Putin of “shamelessly” violating the UN Charter by waging a war aimed at “neutralizing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state”.
“Anyone who wants to leave”
The incorporation of war-torn regions into Russia would mark a significant escalation of the conflict, as Moscow could then attempt to argue that it was defending its territory against Ukrainian forces.
After the vote was announced by Ukraine’s proxy officials, President Putin announced that Russia would call up about 300,000 reservists to bolster the war effort and warned that Moscow would use “all means” to protect its territory.
Former Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev said in a statement on social media that such means included “strategic nuclear weapons”. He predicted that the polling districts “will merge into Russia.”
To most observers, the results of the simultaneous votes were already imposed and was hastened as Ukrainian forces were making sweeping gains in a counterattack to retake the east.
Referendums are reminiscent of a similar vote in 2014 that saw Ukraine’s Crimea annexed to Russia. Western countries said the vote was fraudulent and imposed sanctions on Moscow in response.
Election officials in the Donetsk region, which has been partly controlled by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014, said voting would take place door-to-door in the early days. But that will only be possible at polling stations on the last day, Tuesday.
A woman reacts after a missile attack, killing 6 civilians, at a market in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on September 22, 2022 as the Russo-Ukrainian war continues. source: GT / (Photo by Leon Klein/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Putin’s move this week to call up reservists to Ukraine sparked protests across Russia and mass arrests.
Flights from Russia to neighboring countries, especially the former Soviet republics that allow Russians to enter without a visa, are almost fully booked and prices have skyrocketed, indicating a mass exodus of Russians wanting to avoid going to war.
Lost and exhausted in the arrival hall of the Armenian capital’s airport, 44-year-old Sergei said he fled Russia to escape being summoned.
“The situation in Russia will make anyone want to leave,” he told AFP, on condition of anonymity.