More than 1,300 people were detained across Russia on Wednesday for participating in nationwide anti-war protests — some were conscripted directly into the military, according to a monitoring group, after leader Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of civilians for his faltering invasion of Ukraine.
Images and videos show police cracking down on protesters in several cities. with images showing several protesters during a demonstration in central Moscow who are being taken away by police and authorities in St. Petersburg in an attempt to contain a crowd that is scanning “no mobilization” outside Isakiivskiy Cathedral.
Police arrested protesters in 38 cities in Russia on Wednesday, according to figures released shortly after midnight by the independent monitoring group OVD-Info. The group’s spokeswoman, Maria Kuznetsova, told CNN by phone that at at least four police stations in Moscow, some of the protesters arrested by riot police had been drafted directly into the Russian army.
One of the detainees has been threatened with prosecution for refusing to be summoned, she said. The government has said the penalty for refusing the draft is now 15 years in prison. Of the more than 1,300 people detained nationwide, more than 500 were in Moscow and more than 520 in St. Petersburg, according to OVD-Info.
Just over half of the detained protesters whose names have been made public are women, OVD-Info also said, making it the largest anti-government protest in recent history. However, the watchdog said the full extent of the arrests is unknown.
Nine journalists and 33 minors are also among those detained, it said, adding that one of the minors was “relentlessly beaten” by police.
A broader mobilization?
The demonstrations followed a Wednesday morning speech by Putin, in which he outlined a plan that will increase the stakes of his war in Ukraine, including for the Russian people, at a time when a sudden counter-offensive from Kiev has recaptured thousands of square miles of territory and put Moscow on the hind foot. Experts say Russia’s armed forces are significantly depleted.
The announced “partial mobilization” would call up 300,000 reservists, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said. Putin said those with military experience would be subject to conscription, stressing that the decree – which had already been signed – was necessary to “protect our homeland, its sovereignty and its territorial integrity”.
Putin’s decree appears to allow for broader mobilization than he suggested in his speech.
The first paragraph talks about a “partial mobilization,” but it doesn’t define those who qualify as narrowly as the Russian leader did in his speech. Instead, it says that the only people it doesn’t apply to are those who don’t qualify because of age, illness, or jail time.
Ekaterina Schulmann, a Russian political scientist and associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank, said on Telegram that while the decree “describes the mobilization as partial,” it “sets no parameters for this partisanship, either territorially or categorically.”
“According to this text, anyone can be called up, except those who work in the military-industrial complex and who are exempt for the period of their employment. The fact that the mobilization applies only to reservists or those with particularly necessary skills is stated in the address, but not in the decree.”
Russian human rights lawyer Pavel Chikov said the decree describes mobilization “in the broadest terms”.
“The president leaves it to the discretion of the defense minister. So it is basically the Russian defense ministry that will decide who will be sent to war, from where and in what numbers,” Chikov said on Telegram.
The ultimate meaning of the apparent discrepancy is not yet clear. And it remains to be seen whether the Kremlin has any appetite for wider mobilization among the general civilian population.
Protesters urge war to end
During his speech on Wednesday, Putin also raised the specter of nuclear weapons, saying he would use “all means at our disposal” if he believed that Russia’s “territorial integrity” would be compromised. He also endorsed referendums on accession to Russia that Russia-appointed leaders in four occupied regions of Ukraine announced this week.
Concern among Russian citizens was palpable on Wednesday, as travel agency websites showed a dramatic increase in demand for flights to places where Russians don’t need a Visa. Flight sales websites indicate that direct flights to such countries are sold out at least until Friday.
The protests, most of which seemed to have attracted several dozen people, were another strong signal of the desperation some felt. Dissent is usually quickly crushed in Russia and authorities have further curtailed freedom of expression after the invasion of Ukraine.
Social media footage showed several protesters in Ulan Ude in Eastern Siberia holding placards reading “No to war! No to mobilization!” and “Our husbands, fathers and brothers do not want to kill other husbands and fathers!”
“We want our fathers, husbands and brothers to live… and not leave their children orphans. Stop the war and don’t take our people with you!” said one protester.
Video from Yekaterinburg in western Russia showed police scuffle with several protesters. CNN was unable to independently verify the images from both cities.
Another video, posted by a journalist from the Moscow internet publication The Village, shows dozens of people on Arbatskaya Street chanting “Let him go” while a man is dragged along.
Moscow’s prosecutor’s office also warned citizens on Wednesday not to participate in protests or spread information calling for their participation — reminding people they could face up to 15 years in prison.
When asked on Thursday about reports of people being detained at anti-war rallies being summoned for military service, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the practice “isn’t against the law. There is no violation of the law here.”
Russia wants war
The announcement of Putin’s “partial mobilization” was condemned on Wednesday by Western leaders, many of whom met at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York.
In a rare joint statement, British Prime Minister Liz Truss and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said they both agree Putin’s announcement of a partial mobilization of Russian citizens is a sign of “weakness”.
European Union foreign ministers agreed in New York to go ahead with a new round of sanctions against Russia, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell told reporters.
Ukraine remained defiant in the face of Putin’s announcement, with President Volodymyr Zelensky telling the UNGA in a pre-recorded speech on Wednesday that Russia “was afraid of real (peace) negotiations” and pointing out what he described as Russian “lies”.
Russia “talks about the talks, but announces a military mobilization,” Zelensky said. “Russia wants war.”
German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said Thursday that Putin’s “partial mobilization” would only strengthen the country’s support for Ukraine. French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu said his country would continue to support Ukraine in weapons and training, but added that France needed cooperation within NATO to do so.
Meanwhile, analysis by researchers at the Institute for the Study of War said the move will have no apparent impact on the immediate outcome of the war.
The analysis said it would take weeks or months to get reservists ready for battle, Russian reservists are “poorly trained to begin with”, and the “deliberate phases” of deployment outlined by Russia’s defense minister probably “any sudden influx of Russian troops that could dramatically change the tide of the war.”