During the first seven months of Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” against Ukraine, the Russian president had little trouble taming his domestic opposition.
Street protests were immediately broken up, the Duma (parliament) adopted a raft of repressive legislation, and all independent Russian media were shut down or driven into exile.
The strong domestic consensus in favour of a-war-that-is-still-illegal-to-call-a-war was built by marketing it as a continuation of the best tradition of Russian patriotic sacrifice — a “denazification” rescue operation of the Russian-speaking Donbass, in the spirit of the Great Patriot War against Adolf Hitler’s Germany (1941‒45).
It was also painted as resistance to the anti-Russian schemes of what the Putin administration calls “the collective West” — the United States, Britain, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union.
This induced coma came to an end on September 21 when, shaken by the successful Ukrainian offensive earlier in the month, Putin announced that 300,000 people in the current military reserve would be called up to bolster the Russian war effort.
“Referenda” on whether the self-styled Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics and the occupied territories of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia should join the Russian Federation were abruptly implemented on September 20, after having been put on hold only a week earlier.
Russian left website Posle (Afterwards) described Putin’s announcement as “a desperate step and a challenge for a regime that had relied on mass depoliticisation. There had been an informal pact between citizens and the state: ‘you stay out of the state’s business, and the state remains out of yours.’ Now it is no longer possible to quietly watch the war on the television; people must die in it”.
Just how ‘partial’?
Rear Admiral Vladimir Tsimplyansky, Russian Armed Forces official spokesperson, spelled out some details of the draft on September 22, which will be in addition to the annual conscription intake of about 120,000.
The 18 to 27-year-olds doing their year’s military service are excluded from the draft’s provision for enlistment beyond Russia’s borders. Students are also excluded, a decision possibly influenced by the finding of the latest Levada poll that 54% of 18 to 25-year-olds favour immediately starting peace talks with Ukraine.
The call-up was ready for implementation as soon as Putin announced it. For example, pilots with Russian commercial airlines received their summons hours afterwards, while draftees from the far eastern Republic of Buryatia were already on their way to barracks early on September 22.
Putin signed into law tougher penalties for crimes against military service during the call-up period, on September 24. These had already been adopted unanimously on September 20 by a Duma that would have known Putin’s announcement was coming.
The law stipulates up to three years in prison for refusal to participate in military actions, and up to 10 years if a refusal incurs “serious consequences”.
Pro-Putin social network “influencers” stressed how “partial” the call-up is — a mere 300,000 out of 25 million potential reservists. Using a #nopanic hashtag, they circulated a meme comparing the number summoned to arms to one lolly in a bag of 100.
That was unconvincing, not least because the official decree ordering the call-up contained a confidential section covering the number that could potentially be mobilised. According to the now-exiled Novaya Gazeta, citing “a source from the Putin administration”, up to one million may be drafted.
Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov called this leak “a lie”, but in a country that had been reassured for seven months that the “special military operation” was going to plan, the sudden announcement of the draft provoked mass shock.
The most immediate signs were the exhaustion within five hours of all tickets on flights leaving Russia and queues of up to 19 kilometres at the country’s border checkpoints with Finland, North Ossetia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.
According to the September 25 Novaya Gazeta, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) estimated that 261,000 men and women liable to call-up left the country over September 21‒24. By September 25, the FSB’s border guard was issuing notices at Kazakh border checkpoints preventing draft-age persons from departing.
At the time of writing (September 27), Russian social media is awash with rumours that all borders will be closed to draftees at any moment, with the authorities waiting only for the end of the voting in the Donbas “referenda”.
The call-up provoked spontaneous protests in the non-Russian regions that, proportionate to their populations, have supplied most soldiers for Putin’s Ukraine operation,
For example, analysis by the BBC's Russian service claims to show that at least 301 soldiers from the north Caucasian republic of Dagestan have died, 10 times more than from Moscow.
In Yakutskh, capital of the Far Eastern region of Sakha (Republic of Yakhutia), the female relatives of draftees surrounded police at a recruitment point in a central square with their traditional group dance, the osuokhai, while shouting "No to genocide!" and "No to war!”.
In response, Sakha head Aisen Nikolaev announced that those called up “by mistake” should be returned from the armed forces.
One video (subtitled in English) shows women demanding the release of draftees for a war they say Russia started.
Like his Yakutian counterpart, Dagestan governor Sergei Melikov admitted on September 26 that "mistakes have been made".
Chechnya — an autocrat retreats
Even the autocratic ruler of Chechnya, arch-Putinist Ramzán Kadyrov, who supplied his personal militia as shock troops for the Russian war effort, has become responsive to women's protest.
After the success of the Ukrainian offensive in early September, Kadyrov was all bluster — the Russian retreat was a disaster, its military were incompetent, heads had to roll.
Moreover, the September 21 exchange of 225 Ukrainian for 55 Russian prisoners left him “extremely unhappy” because “handing over even one of those Azov terrorists should have been out of the question”. Kadyrov said on September 12 that he would send “elite troops” to bolster the weakened Russian presence in the Kharkiv region.
However, on September 21 in the Chechen capital Grozny, the following appeal for everyone to attend Friday prayers in the central city mosque appeared on local chats: “The day has come when we must all show our unity. Our children have been sent to war to die, all my sons are in Ukraine, two of them are already dead. I will not give them the rest. If I go to the mosque alone, I will be intimidated, or worse, but if we all stand together and say that our children are not expendable, our children will be with us.”
About 20 women turned up for the prayer-protest and all were arrested, with Kadyrov saying their husbands should be sent to Ukraine.
Yet, the Chechen overlord announced on September 23 that his country would not take part in the call-up, on the grounds that it had already “overfulfilled its quota” of recruits by 254%.
Return to the streets
These spontaneous protests were accompanied by planned actions in more than 30 cities, an initiative of the pacifist youth movement Vesná (Spring) and Feminist Anti-War Resistance (FAS). The actions turned into a cat-and-mouse game against massive police presence, with the organisers announcing changes of venue at the last moment over Telegram channels.
According to OVD-Info, 2355 arrests took place in protests over September 21–26. Coverage of the protests can be found on The Moscow Times and Meduza websites and on Green Left’s translation of the FAS Telegram Channel.
FAS summed up the meaning of the protests in a September 25 post: “While this number is a drop in the bucket on a national scale, it was an important and worthwhile protest and here is why: for the first time since the war began, the agenda of the protesters fully coincided with the mass sentiments of the people.”
[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed version of this article will soon appear on Links — International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]