How the reality of Vladimir Putin’s war finally smacks ordinary Russians in the face

Until this week, Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine war had been almost entirely invisible to most Muscovites.

The conspicuous “Z” signs – the symbol of war – had disappeared from awnings, shop windows and even private cars in Russia’s capital by April.

Closed McDonald’s and Starbucks stores have been replaced with local lookalikes. Restaurants, cafes and nightclubs continued a roaring trade. After brief panic buying at the beginning of the war, the supermarket shelves were full and the ruble even rose to new heights.

Celebrations across the city continued as usual, and with the exception of a handful of shows that a new Duma committee deemed “unpatriotic,” theaters were packed, too.

“Moscow is an enchanted kingdom where everything is perfectly normal and nothing bad happens anywhere,” joked a prominent Moscow theater producer. “Definitely not the capital of a country waging the greatest war of the 21st century.”

This illusion collapsed on Wednesday when Vladimir Putin announced partial mobilization in his bellicose speech.

For millions of Russians who had willfully ignored the conflict, the war in Ukraine suddenly went from being almost invisible to being urgent and personal.

Putin and his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu emphasized that the call-up of one million reservists only affects “people with military experience” and “students need not worry”. The sudden call to arms from mostly unwilling men came, in Russian, like a thunderbolt out of the blue.

“Every Russian knows that if the government says they definitely won’t do something, they will,” said Irina Bukova, 43, a Moscow psychologist whose 48-year-old partner completed his mandatory military service in the early 1990s .

“They say the mobilization only affects ex-professionals. But everyone is talking about what the next step will be for anyone who has ever had any kind of military training.”

According to Ms. Bukina, a neighbor reported that her son, who had just graduated as an architect, and all his classmates – who were doing compulsory military training as pioneers at the university – had been given draft papers.

The introduction of even partial mobilization was a move the Kremlin had strenuously avoided until now, when Mr Putin made a solemn pledge on International Women’s Day on March 8 that conscripts “will not and will not take part in hostilities”.

But a nationwide recruitment drive by both the Russian army and Kremlin-affiliated private military company Wagner Group has clearly not produced enough volunteers — despite offering signing bonuses worth several months’ salary and actively recruiting thieves and murderers from Russian prisons. The Kremlin’s attempt to wage war with an army of consumables had failed.

Around two hundred mostly young people gathered for a protest on Old Arbat street in Moscow. Many wore masks to avoid being spotted by facial recognition cameras.

“No to war!” they sang in unison before riot police rushed in to put them on waiting buses. “I’m not afraid of anything anymore,” said Maria, a middle-aged woman who joined the protest, adding, “I’m not going to make my kids fight this bloody war!”

Another young woman, who clung to two male friends as police dragged her away, shouted, “Putin is a traitor! He ruined Russia!”

According to the human rights organization OVD-info, 1,300 people were arrested during protests in more than 30 Russian cities, most were released after paying fines of up to 700 pounds (800 euros). But many military-age male protesters weren’t so lucky.

Several opposition activists, including Kirill Goncharov, a senior member of the Yabloko party, have published photos of conscription letters urging them to report to military services.

Conscripts in Ukraine are still not eligible for front-line military service – but military service is clearly being used as a punishment for dissent.

“That was only to be expected [authorities] started using mobilization to put pressure on the protesters from day one,” said Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora association of human rights lawyers.

Vladimir Solovyov, a Kremlin propagandist, promised on his Telegram channel that all opponents of the regime would immediately find themselves in uniform.

Russian social media coined a term for Mr Putin’s call – “mogilizatsita,” a mix of the Russian word mogila, or grave, and mobilization.

Unusually long queues before leaving Russia were reported overnight and yesterday morning at border crossings, including those with Mongolia and Kazakhstan to the east and Georgia to the south, where hundreds of cars were stuck in a massive traffic jam.

In the Chelyabinsk region, which borders Kazakhstan, dozens of men were seen standing near their cars in the vast steppe just after dawn.

At Moscow airports, border guards reportedly carried out random checks on young men and questioned them on their suitability for conscription.

Putin’s sudden decision to reverse six months of so-called “hidden mobilization” and go public with a nationwide, albeit partial, appeal surprised not only ordinary Russians but political insiders as well.

“I believe many [in the Russian elite] were stunned,” said a former senior Kremlin official who worked with Putin until 2016.

“Politically, this is a step you wouldn’t take unless you were desperate. This is a change of message. Not everything goes according to plan.”

In fact, even in his recent speeches in Vladivostok and Samarkand, Putin had tried to be as boring and reserved as possible, talking about the “challenges” facing Russia’s economy but not specifically mentioning the war.

Although protests against the mobilization were small, the sudden increase in the visibility of the war is likely to send politically dangerous shockwaves through Russian society.

Although a large majority of Russians still claim to support Putin, private Kremlin polls leaked in July showed that Russians were equally divided between supporting a continuation of the conflict or making peace. Fifteen percent of respondents were strongly in favor of “military special operations,” and a similar number were strongly opposed, with a 35% to 35% gap between those who were more in favor and those who were more opposed.

After Putin’s partial mobilization, one thing is clear: the Kremlin’s plan to conduct the war cautiously and to wage it with expendable volunteers, colonial troops from ethnic minority provinces and prisoners has failed.

The author of this story remains anonymous due to reporting limitations

(© Telegraph Media Group Ltd. 2022)

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022] How the reality of Vladimir Putin’s war finally smacks ordinary Russians in the face

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