Things Don’t Seem to Be Going Very Well for Vladimir Putin Right Now

From arson attacks at draft centres to furious mothers berating army officers, a faltering war in Ukraine is causing new headaches for the Russian president.
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PHOTO: GAVRIIL GRIGOROV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin is facing one of his worst periods in office since coming to power in 2000. He’s been hit with a mass exodus of fighting-age men who fear being drafted into his brutal war in Ukraine, staggering troop and territory losses, violence at conscription centres, protests right across the country’s seven time zones, and humiliation by international partners.   

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Here’s what’s going on. 

Mass exodus

Putin announced a “partial mobilisation” last Wednesday, saying that men who had relevant combat experience could be called up to fight in Ukraine. 

The announcement sparked panic, with men scrambling to buy tickets to flee the country. Huge traffic jams soon appeared at land borders, with crossings into Finland going up 80 percent, and a 48-hour queue to get over the Georgian border. 

Airport queues have also been full of young men fleeing and the high demand caused flight prices to skyrocket. Reports on Tuesday said that some people were even chartering private jets and paying £25,000 each to escape

At least 261,000 men fled the country in the space of three days after mobilisation was announced on the 21st of September, independent Russian media outlet Novaya Gazeta Europe reported, citing a source in the president’s administration. Several media outlets have recently reported that military-age men will be forbidden from leaving the country soon. They predict this new rule will be introduced after the Russian parliament claims four occupied Ukrainian territories belong to Russia, following the sham referendums Moscow is holding there.   

The mobilisation came after Russia suffered humiliating battlefield setbacks in the east of Ukraine and was forced to retreat. Mounting casualties are adding up to the bitter feeling of defeat and public discontent as now most of the country. According to Mediazona, another Russian media outlet now primarily based outside of the country, and the BBC, 6,756 Russian soldiers have died since the start of the invasion in February. 

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A source in the presidential administration told Novaya Gazeta Europe that a secret clause of the mobilisation decree allows the Kremlin to call up to one million reservists — a claim denied by Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov.

While the Kremlin has denied that the borders will be closed, The Bell, an independent Russian-language media outlet, reports that military recruitment offices are being sent to border crossings and airports with the names of men liable for military service, who are reportedly being denied entry into neighbouring states. 

Women leading the protests

Mobilisation has turned out to be a deeply unpopular move and sparked rare protests across the country – from Moscow to cities in Siberia and the North Caucasus – with people speaking out despite the threat of heavy jail sentences and police violence. According to the Russian human rights group OVD-Info, 2,355 people have been detained since last Wednesday. Anti-war protesters were reportedly handed draft summons at police stations last week.

Protesters have been particularly active in the Republic of Dagestan in the North Caucasus, which has seen one of the highest death tolls in Russia on the battlefield during the war. 

On Sunday and Monday, several hundred people, mostly women terrified of losing their sons and husbands, rallied in the regional capital Makhachkala and other cities. The protesters chanted “No to war!”, “No to mobilisation!”, Riga-based independent outlet Meduza reported. Some women argued with the police, saying “Russia attacked Ukraine. We are not blind!” A video of a woman chasing a police officer went viral on social media. 

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About 400 protesters, mostly women, protested in the Siberian city of Yakutsk, by performing a traditional circle dance to surround the police. ​

Photographs of Putin himself have been burnt during some of the rallies, showing who many hold solely responsible for the fighting. 

Protests also took place in Ulan-Ude, in the Republic of Buryatia, which has been severely affected by the war. According to the Free Buryatia Foundation, more than 6,500 people from Buryatia have been called up in the mobilisation. Ethnic minorities have been drafted at disproportionately high numbers by Russia during the conflict, and campaigners have accused the Kremlin of racism.

Shooting and arson attacks

On Monday, a gunman opened fire at a military draft office in the town of Ust-Ilimsk in the Irkutsk region. A 25-year-old conscript shouted, “Now we're all going home!” before shooting a military recruiter, who was taken to hospital, the independent Russian-language news outlet Baza reports. 

In Ryazan, in western Russia, a man set himself on fire. According to Novaya Gazeta Ryazan, the man was shouting that he did not want to go to war. 

In a sweeping draft campaign, there have been many reports of people being wrongly called up, with disabled, elderly, and other people who can’t fight receiving notices.

Amid a massive public outcry over erratic mobilisation, Peskov acknowledged on Monday that some people had been called up in error and that mistakes would be corrected. The Free Buryatia Foundation says that dozens of people have been able to return home as a result. 

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Growing isolation

As the conflict escalates, Putin is also finding himself in ever-increasing international isolation.

Chinese and Indian leaders, who have so far been careful not to take sides, were critical of the war at the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Uzbekistan. 

Notorious for making other world leaders wait for him, Putin found himself waiting for leaders of Turkey, Azerbaijan, India, and Kyrgyzstan.

Putin looked uncomfortable this week as fellow autocrat and dictator of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko ranted about men running away from mobilisation.  

At the UN General Assembly last week, numerous world leaders used their speeches to denounce Russia’s war, AP reported. In the usually deeply divided UN Security Council, virtually all of the 15 council members criticised Russia harshly.