- Laurence Peter and Laura Gozzi
Russian police on Wednesday arrested hundreds of demonstrators protesting against the Kremlin’s decision to call in thousands of additional troops to fight in Ukraine.
The Russian human rights organization OVD-Info estimated that detainees are more than 1,000. The largest number of arrests took place in Yekaterinburg, a major city east of Moscow.
Dozens of people were also arrested in Irkutsk and other Siberian cities, as well as in the Russian capital itself.
The flights of airplaine for Leave Russia quickly sold out after Vladimir Putin’s announcement.
The president of Russia ordered a partial mobilization, which means that some 300,000 reservists will be called up to reinforce Russian troops who have suffered recent setbacks on the battlefield in Ukraine.
The move came a day after Ukraine’s occupied areas announced early referendums to join Russia.
In remarks condemned by Ukraine and its allies, Putin stressed that he would use “all available means” to protect Russian territory, implying that this could involve the use of nuclear weapons.
Harsh warnings to protesters
Moscow’s prosecutor’s office warned on Wednesday that online calls to join or participate in unauthorized street protests could lead to up to 15 years in prison.
Those behind such calls could be prosecuted under laws against discrediting the Armed Forces, spreading “fake news” about Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, or encouraging minors to protest.
Harsh penalties for spreading “disinformation” about the Ukraine war and police harassment of anti-Putin activists have meant that public protests have been rare since the beginning of the invasion.
But the anti-war opposition group Vesna called for widespread protests on Wednesday and reported on Telegram many arrests across Russia.
A video showed police forcing protesters into a bus in Yekaterinburg.
Pavel Chikov, a lawyer for the Russian human rights group Agora, said the organization had received 6,000 inquiries since Tuesday morning from Russians wanting information on soldiers’ rights.
In the meantime, flights to popular destinations like Istanbul in Turkey and Yerevan in Armenia sold out and prices for remaining seats skyrocketed.
“Absolutely everyone is afraid”
Kremlin troops are racking up heavy losses in Ukraine, where Kyiv forces have recaptured a large area east of Kharkiv.
President Putin’s control over state media has ensured that many Russians support his claim that Ukraine’s “neo-Nazi” government and NATO threaten Russia, and that ethnic Russians in Ukraine must be defended.
In reality, Ukraine’s government was democratically elected and has no far-right politicians.
Russian regional governors, who now have to organize the mobilization of more troops, expressed their support.
“We will not be weakened, divided or exterminated”, Ulyanovsk Governor Alexei Russkikh said.
“Our region, like all the others in our country, has a duty to mobilize citizens for military service,” he added.
Chelyabinsk Governor Alexei Teksler said the mobilization was necessary to guarantee Russia’s “sovereignty, security and territorial integrity”.
But young Russians told the BBC their fears about the call.
“I was hoping it would never happen,” Matvey said in St. Petersburg.
“Now it is obvious that Putin will not step back and will continue his stupid fight to the last Russian citizen,” he added.
“I should not be recruited during this phase of the mobilization, but there are no guarantees that things will not get worse,” he said.
For his part, Evgeny, a 31-year-old Russian living in the UK, told the BBC that there is a widespread fear of recruitment.
“Absolutely everyone is afraid, everyone sends different information about the mobilization. It is very difficult to find out what is true and what is not. Nobody trusts the government.”
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