Russian police have dispersed peaceful protests against President Vladimir Putin’s military mobilisation order, arresting hundreds, including some children, across the country, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned Russians that their president was knowingly “sending citizens to their death”.
Police detained nearly 750 people, including more than 370 in the capital Moscow and some 150 in St Petersburg, according to OVD-Info, an independent website that monitors political arrests in Russia. Some of the arrested individuals were minors, OVD-Info said on Saturday.
Protests erupted within hours on Wednesday after Putin announced a call-up of 300,000 army reservists in a move to beef up his forces fighting in Ukraine after the Russian military suffered battlefield setbacks. A Russian general who handled supplies at the Ukraine front lines was replaced on Saturday.
Police deployed in cities where protests were scheduled by opposition group Vesna and supporters of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny, quickly arresting demonstrators before they could hold protests.
The Ukrainian president, in his late-night address, called on Moscow’s forces to surrender, saying they would “be treated in a civilised manner… no one will know the circumstances of your surrender”.
The comments came just hours after Russia passed a law making voluntary surrender and desertion a crime punishable by 10 years of imprisonment.
A separate law, also signed on Saturday, facilitated Russian citizenship for foreigners who enlist in the Russian army for at least a year, bypassing the normal requirement for five years of residency in the country.
Russia officially counts millions of former conscripts as reservists – most of the male population of fighting age – and the “partial mobilisation” gave no criteria for who would be called up.
Reports have surfaced of men with no military experience or who are past draft age receiving call-up papers, adding to the outrage that has revived anti-war demonstrations.
Criticism appeared to be spreading
Criticism also appeared to be spreading among Putin’s supporters. The head of the Russian president’s human rights commission, Valery Fadeyev, called on defence minister Sergei Shoigu to put a halt to the brutal manner with which many draft boards were proceeding.
The editor-in-chief of pro-Kremlin Russian television RT also expressed anger at the new recruitments. “They’re infuriating people, as if on purpose, as if out of spite. As if they’d been sent by Kyiv,” she said.
In another rare sign of turmoil, the defence ministry said the deputy minister in charge of logistics, four-star General Dmitry Bulgakov, had been replaced “for transfer to another role”, giving no additional details.
As long queues of men trying to leave the country formed at Russia’s borders, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov delivered a fiery speech at the UN General Assembly accusing Western nations of seeking to “destroy” the nation.
“The official Russophobia in the West is unprecedented, now the scope is grotesque,” Lavrov said.
“They are not shying away from declaring the intent to inflict not only military defeat on our country but also to destroy and fracture Russia.”.
Meanwhile, Russia staged its second day of the so-called referendums in four occupied regions of Ukraine and appears set to formally annex a swath of the territory next week.
Kyiv and the West have denounced the votes as a sham and said outcomes in favour of annexation are pre-determined.
Putin this week warned that Moscow would use “all means” to protect its territory, which former Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev said on social media could include the use of “strategic nuclear weapons”.
The annexation raises concerns that Russia could then view any military move on the occupied regions as an attack on its own territory.