Russian men flocked to border crossings with Finland, Georgia, and other neighboring nations Saturday, waiting in long lines to flee President Vladimir Putin’s “partial mobilization” draft as military officers went door-to-door in Russia’s hinterlands to call up the reluctant troops.
The exodus — which reportedly resulted in a quarter-mile-long line of cars at the Vaalimaa border crossing point in southeast Finland and a 2,000-vehicle traffic jam at Georgia’s Verkhny Lars checkpoint — came as Putin amended Russia’s criminal code, decreeing 10-year jail terms for those refusing to participate in combat operations.
“It is just insane,” said Nikita, a 27-year-old Russian waiting tearfully at the Finnish border. “All my friends (are) in danger … I am just for freedom.”
The mad dash came three days after Putin ordered the call-up of 300,000 reservists to fight in Ukraine during a national address that included a veiled threat to deploy the country’s nuclear arsenal against the US.
But the order sparked mass protests across Russia, resulting in nearly 1,500 arrests, in part because of a lesser-acknowledged paragraph in the decree that said up to 1 million recruits could be mustered.
Demonstrations continued to flare Saturday as word of botched conscription orders spread throughout Russia.
In rural Buryatia, officials arrived at the door of the long-dead Alexander Bezdorozhny with papers ordering him to report for military duty.
Bezdorozhny died at age 40 in November 2020, nearly two years ago, after battling a chronic lung condition. He had never served in the Russian armed forces.
“It hurts me that the state only remembered him after he was dead,” his sister Natalia Semyonova said.
The conscription orders for Bezdorozhny indicated that local officials are ignoring Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s promise that only military reservists with combat experience or specialized skills would be subject to the draft.
“There’s nothing partial about the mobilization in Buryatia,” said Alexandra Garmazhapova of the Free Buryatia Foundation, who estimated that up to 5,000 men in the region were caught up in the first wave of draft orders. “They are taking everyone.”
Garmazhapova accused the Kremlin of disproportionately grabbing its conscripts from out-of-the-way portions of the massive country in an attempt to tamp down the backlash in Russia’s urban centers.
“The federal center is trying not to touch St Petersburg and Moscow, because in Moscow you can have protests against the Kremlin,” she said.
The head of the Sakha Republic, which borders the Arctic Ocean in Russia’s remote east, acknowledged Saturday that ineligible men, including fathers of young children, had been drafted improperly.
“All those who were mobilized by mistake should be returned,” Aisen Nikolaev wrote on Telegram. “That work has already begun.”
But neither the reassurances nor the mass arrests brought the protests to a halt Saturday.
Riot police moved in on scores of demonstrators in Novosibirsk, detaining them as they linked hands and sang, BBC video showed, while girls as young as 14 were arrested in St. Petersburg, Sky News reported. Meanwhile, in the city of Omsk, video obtained by Reuters showed conscripts brawling with police who were attempting to force them onto buses.
More than 700 protesters were arrested Saturday, according to the OVD-Info human rights group.