Putin's mobilization draws public blowback, especially in minority regions

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KYIV, Ukraine — The young man who walked into the recruitment center in Ust-Ilimsk, Siberia, early on Monday morning had told his mother he was going to enlist. But he had other plans. When he arrived, he calmly entered the building and walked up to the podium, where military commissar Alexander Eliseev, the head of the local draft committee, was working. The young man took out a concealed firearm and opened fire.

According to Igor Kobzev, the governor of Irkutsk Oblast, Eliseev remains in critical condition in a hospital. When arrested, 25-year-old Ruslan Zinin told Russian media he was motivated by the drafting of his best friend into the army.

Police officers detain a man in Moscow

Russia is continuing to experience a wave of protests and civil unrest as its people come to terms with the implication of President Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilization, which he announced last week. Though it was initially said to be a call-up of 300,000 reservists, the Latvia-based independent Russian news outlet Meduza has reported that the real figure could be as high as 1.2 million. The same outlet also reported that since Putin’s order came down, the Federal Security Service (FSB), which controls Russia’s border service, recorded 261,000 men exiting the country.

The most significant street protests so far have come in the region of Dagestan, where protesters filled the streets. Video posted to social media shows people blocking roads, fighting with Russian police and chanting antiwar and anti-mobilization slogans. There is also growing evidence of protesters becoming more organized and more determined to resist Russian police who attempt to arrest fellow demonstrators.

The protests in Dagestan have partly been driven by the belief that the war and these latest mobilization orders are disproportionately targeting Russia’s poorer areas and ethnic-minority-dominated republics. The republic of Dagestan, a state in southern Russia that borders Armenia and Georgia, is one of several heavily Muslim-majority enclaves with a complicated history of insurgency, separatism and terrorism. Moscow fought two brutal wars against the breakaway republic of Chechnya in the 1990s and early 2000s; now the warlord president of that republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, is a staunch Putin ally who has deployed his own militants into Ukraine.

Police officers block a street in Saint Petersburg
Police officers block a street in St. Petersburg on Sept. 24, following calls to protest against the partial mobilization announced by Putin. (-/AFP via Getty Images)

Research published in August by the BBC and the Russian media outlet Mediazona found that of 3,798 casualties they could identify via local media reports and the statements of families and local authorities, Dagestan and Buryatia — a state that borders Mongolia and contains a sizable indigenous Mongolic population — had suffered the largest number of confirmed fatalities: 270 and 245, respectively. By contrast, Moscow, home to 9% of Russia’s total population, lost only 14 people.

“In Buryatia, the campaign is called Bartholomew’s Night, after the 16th century Catholic massacre of Protestants in France,” said Paul Goble, a former State Department and CIA official who specializes in Russia’s ethnic and religious minorities. “That’s not something you hear very often in the Russian far east, is it? Dagestan is at the point where people are now talking of a Maidan in the regional capital, Makhachkala.” Maidan refers to Ukraine’s revolutionary protest movement in 2014.

The Kremlin’s bloody entanglement with the north Caucasus even has a historical antecedent in Ukraine’s post-Soviet development. When Ukrainians of all backgrounds voted overwhelmingly for independence from the Soviet Union in a 1991 referendum, Russian President Boris Yeltsin prevailed in vain upon his Ukrainian counterpart, Leonid Kravchuk, to bring Kyiv into a new union with Moscow. One of Yeltsin’s motives, as repeatedly relayed to then-President George H.W. Bush, was “that without Ukraine, Russia would be outnumbered and outvoted by the Muslim republics,” according to Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhy.

Police officers detain protesters in Moscow
Police officers detain people during a protest in Moscow on Sept. 24 against the invasion of Ukraine and partial mobilization. (Getty Images)

Nevertheless, Goble thinks a better indicator of where mobilization is hitting hardest is economic rather than ethnic or religious. “Moscow is targeting places that are poorer because those people are more likely to see military service in a positive way, with the exception of those who’ve already seen people come home dead," he said. "And a lot of Buryats have done just that already.”

Moscow and St. Petersburg have had demonstrations on a smaller scale. Russian riot police have been deployed there to disperse crowds and can be seen beating and aggressively dragging off protesters — or simply anyone standing in their midst. Videos published on social media captured incredibly confused scenes in which Russian police detained pro-Putin counterdemonstrators, even a woman bystander simply waiting at a bus stop. According to independent monitors in Russia, over 1,300 men and women had been detained following protests in these Russian cities early last week, with many Russian men of military age apparently being given their draft papers after their arrests.

“Sergei” (not his real name) fled St. Petersburg within 24 hours of the mobilization order last week. He told Yahoo News that his best friend is a first-order candidate for call-up because he served in the military for a year seven years ago. “He’s a businessman and supports his entire family, including his parents and sister,” Sergei said. “And he’s really frustrated because he did everything right, paid his debt to the Motherland, and meanwhile people are claiming medical excuses — many of them fake — to get out of being sent to Ukraine.”

Russians are also turning to more extreme forms of resistance as peaceful protests have been predictably ignored or repressed. In Ryazan, a city southeast of Moscow, a man set himself on fire at a bus station while shouting slogans against the war and his impending participation in it.

Police officers detain a man in Moscow
A protest in Moscow, Sept. 21. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images)

Recruitment offices have been set on fire or attacked. Video released by the Russian media outlet Mash shows a station wagon ramming the entrance of an office in the Volgograd district before the driver tossed several Molotov cocktails through the doors and windows of the building, seriously damaging the office.

Arson is also said to count as more than a symbolic gesture: Some observers have pointed out that the Russian army still largely relies on paper records, which would likely be destroyed in any fire. The Volgograd attack was far from an isolated event, according to Meduza, which claims that 11 military enlistment offices and six administrative buildings have been set ablaze in Russia since the start of the mobilization.

The furor occurs against a backdrop of increasing discontent against the hastily implemented mobilization policy, whose critics include hawks and regime loyalists. Margarita Simonyan, head of the Russian state media outlet RT, complained that mobilization orders were “infuriating people, as if on purpose, as if out of spite ... as if they’d been sent by Kyiv,” while also grumbling that mobilization papers were being handed out to those too old or sick for military service. Vladimir Solovyov, host of Russian state television’s flagship talk show and another prominent Kremlin mouthpiece, called for those responsible for the botched rollout of the policy to be shot.

Ukrainian soldiers
Ukrainian soldiers at a collection point for destroyed Russian military vehicles after it was taken over from Russian forces in Kharkiv region, Sept. 25. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)

Anger at mobilization has been stoked by recently conscripted Russian men who have published on social media footage of the dire conditions and decrepit equipment they’ve been issued. One widely shared video shows new recruits inspecting issued AKM assault rifles, which are covered in rust both externally and internally, appearing to be barely functional. Training barracks are shown to be in a substandard state, with conscripts made to sleep on filthy mattresses with no bedding.

Other Russians have been complaining that their conscripted relatives have been sent immediately to the front, with little or none of the promised training. In the city of Lipetsk, the wife of a recently mobilized man told Russian media that her husband and 1,000 other men had been given just one day of training before being sent to join the 237th Tank Regiment, currently fighting in Ukraine.

“There comes a point, as Gorbachev found out,” said Goble, “when using repression is like throwing water at a grease fire — the fire spreads.”

Additional reporting by Holger Roonemaa.