President Vladimir Putin’s call Wednesday to mobilize Russian troops to fight in the battlefields of Ukraine is raising the stakes at home, where the government message has been that life continues as normal despite the “special military operation” next door.
The partial mobilization shatters that narrative, as 300,000 young men are being called up to serve in Ukraine.
It’s the first such mobilization in Russia since the Second World War.
“I was shocked by this,” said Georgiy, a Moscow-based student who received a draft notice on Sept 19.
CBC spoke with him Wednesday morning and has agreed to disclose only his first name because he could face punishment for speaking out.
The 23-year-old served in the military four years ago when he was conscripted, but recently received a draft notice asking him to report to his local military office because he was being called up to perform a technical role.
WATCH | Pressure on Putin’s war as Ukraine makes battlefield gains:
He said when he reported to the office, his documents were changed to show that he should serve as a front-line soldier.
When he and his family watched Putin’s speech on Wednesday morning, his mother was crying.
“I want us and other countries to live in peace,” he said.
“We don’t need a war.”
Seeking an exemption
Georgiy told CBC he is going back to the draft office with his father to see if he can be exempt from military service because he is studying.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Wednesday that Russia was not drafting students or conscripts to go to fight in Ukraine, but in recent months, there have been reports of conscripts being sent to the front line, including some who served on the Moskva warship that sank in the Black Sea on April 14.
Shoigu said while there are 2.5 million men in reserve who are eligible to be called up, 300,000 will be drafted into service now. The first wave of mobilization applies to those who have military service and are under the age of 35.
Shoigu also said that 5,937 Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine, a number substantially lower than what the U.S. estimated in July, when officials put Russia’s military death toll at around 15,000.
“The shortage of military personnel in the army is now enormous,” said Sergei Krivenko, director of Citizen Army, a Moscow-based organization that advises young men and their families about their rights around conscription.
Trying to recruit foreigners
In an interview with CBC, he said he believes Russia is underestimating the number of its soldiers who have been killed and the partial mobilization is not only a sign of how many have been killed and wounded, but also an indication that the country’s recruitment campaign hasn’t worked.
On Tuesday, Russia’s State Duma, its lower house of parliament, passed a bill to make it easier for foreigners to obtain Russian citizenship if they sign a one-year contract with the military.
The City of Moscow also announced it is setting up a recruitment centre for foreign citizens.
Krivenko said this is aimed at labour migrants from former Soviet republics like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan who are working in Russia, but he doubts they will be signing up en masse.
He said previous efforts to recruit among that group have not been successful becuase people choose to keep working and are “probably not ready to die for these crazy ideas of the president of Russia.”
Vesna, a Russian activist group, is calling for protests across Russia Wednesday evening against the mobilization and the war.
Russian army was pushed back near Kharkiv
Despite the threat of being arrested, Maria Lakhina, an organizer who fled from Russia to Armenia in March, hopes people will take to the streets because they are at risk of being drafted, and so are their brothers and friends.
She says that when the war comes to “people’s homes,” they are more affected by it.
Russia’s army was pushed back last week from a large swath of land near Kharkiv, which Ukrainian officials say amounts to 8,000 square kilometres of its territory.
Russian officials have tried to frame the battlefield loss as a chance to “regroup,” but some pro-war bloggers have called online for Russia to intensify its attack.
Four Ukrainian regions currently controlled by Russia will be holding referendums on joining Russia between Sept. 23 and 27.
Donetsk and Luhansk have been run by Russian-backed separatists since 2014, and are in the eastern part of the country, while Kherson and Zaporizhia are in the south.
Votes condemned by Western leaders
Russia celebrated its seizure of those two areas as it created a land corridor to Crimea, which it annexed in 2014. Organizers of a referendum in March 2014 said a majority of people in Crimea asked to leave Ukraine and join Russia, but most of the international community has dismissed the vote as illegitimate.
Western leaders have already condemned the latest planned votes as an assault on Ukraine’s territorial integrity. But through his speech, Putin warned the West to not intervene or there would be consequences.
He said that if Russia’s territorial integrity is threatened, it will use all means “to protect Russia and our people.”
“We will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us,” he said. “This is not a bluff.”
Mārtiņš Vargulis, a researcher at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs and lecturer at Riga Stradins University, said “this clearly indicates that Russia is going all in.”
He sees Putin’s decision to call a partial mobilization as a kind of “stress test” for his popularity.
While a poll by the Moscow-based Levada Center pegged Putin’s approval rating at more than 80 per cent in August, it’s hard to gauge how accurate it is, given that people can be sent to jail for publicly criticizing the president and what he still insists on calling its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Vargulis said Putin’s nuclear threat is worrying given that he is likely feeling desperate to achieve a success on the battlefield, but he isn’t sure the president is ready to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine or NATO countries.
He believes Putin is wielding the threat as a way to try to stop Western countries, particularly the U.S. and the U.K., from supplying Ukraine with weapons.
“I think that he wouldn’t like to test whether the West will intervene after such use of tactical nuclear weapons,” he said.
In an interview with Germany’s BILD TV, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he didn’t think Putin would use nuclear weapons either, nor would Western countries allow it.
As for the pending referendums, Ukrainian officials have dismissed the votes, saying they won’t change any of their plans, and that the military will keep fighting to retake Ukraine’s territory.