Flights out of Russia fill up quickly, prices skyrocket amid conscription fears
Hundreds arrested in Russia for protesting military mobilization
President Vladimir Putin's announcement of Russia's first military draft since the Second World War sparked waves of protests across the country, resulting in over 700 arrests.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization of reservists Wednesday to bolster his forces in Ukraine, a deeply unpopular move that sparked rare protests across the country and led to almost 1,200 arrests.
The risky order follows humiliating setbacks for Putin's troops nearly seven months after they invaded Ukraine. The first such call-up in Russia since the Second World War heightened tensions with the Western backers of Ukraine, who derided it as an act of weakness and desperation.
In his 14-minute nationally televised address, Putin also warned the West that he isn't bluffing over using everything at his disposal to protect Russia — an apparent reference to his nuclear arsenal. He has previously told the West not to back Russia against the wall and has rebuked NATO countries for supplying weapons to Ukraine.
Confronted with steep battlefield losses, expanding front lines and a conflict that has raged longer than expected, the Kremlin has struggled to replenish its troops in Ukraine; there have even been reports of widespread recruitment in prisons.
The total number of reservists to be called up could be as high as 300,000, officials said. However, Putin's decree authorizing the partial mobilization, which took effect immediately, offered few details, raising suspicions that the draft could be broadened at any moment.
Russia mobilizes 300,000 reservists for Ukraine war
In a televised address, Russian President Vladimir Putin said a partial mobilization would be necessary for the next phase of its war with Ukraine. He also accused the West of engaging in 'nuclear blackmail.'
Despite Russia's harsh laws against criticizing the military and the war, protesters outraged by the mobilization overcame their fear of arrest to stage protests in cities across the country. Nearly 1,200 Russians were arrested in anti-war demonstrations in cities including Moscow and St. Petersburg, according to the independent Russian human rights group OVD-Info.
An Associated Press crew in Moscow witnessed at least a dozen arrests in the first 15 minutes of a protest in the capital, with police in heavy body armour tackling demonstrators in front of shops, hauling some away as they chanted, "No to war!"
"I'm not afraid. I'm not afraid of anything. The most valuable thing that they can take from us is the life of our children. I won't give them life of my child," said one Muscovite who declined to give her name.
Asked whether protesting would help, she said: "It won't help, but it's my civic duty to express my stance. No to war!"
In Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth-largest city, police hauled onto buses some of the 40 protesters who were detained at an anti-war rally. One woman in a wheelchair shouted, referring to the Russian president: "Goddamn bald-headed nut job. He's going to drop a bomb on us, and we're all still protecting him. I've said enough."
The Vesna opposition movement called for protests, saying: "Thousands of Russian men — our fathers, brothers and husbands — will be thrown into the meat grinder of the war. What will they be dying for? What will mothers and children be crying for?"
The Moscow prosecutor's office warned that organizing or participating in protests could lead to up to 15 years in prison. Authorities have issued similar warnings ahead of other protests. Wednesday's were the first nationwide anti-war protests since the fighting began in late February.
Rush to flee Russia
Other Russians responded by trying to leave the country and flights out quickly became booked, apparently driven by fears that Russia's borders could soon close or of a broader call-up that might send many Russian men of fighting age to the war's front lines.
Tickets for the Moscow-Belgrade flights operated by Air Serbia, the only European carrier besides Turkish Airlines to maintain flights to Russia despite a European Union flight embargo, sold out for the next several days. The price for flights from Moscow to Istanbul or Dubai increased within minutes before jumping again, reaching as high as 9,200 euros ($12,200 Cdn) for a one-way economy class fare.
A group based in Serbia — Russians, Belarussians, Ukrainians and Serbs Together Against War — tweeted that there were no available flights to Belgrade from Russia until mid-October. Flights to Turkey, Georgia or Armenia also sold out, according to the Belgrade-based group.
Serbia's capital, Belgrade, has become a popular destination for Russians during the war. Up to 50,000 Russians have fled to Serbia since Russia invaded Ukraine and many opened businesses, especially in the IT sector.
Russians don't need visas to enter Serbia, which has not joined Western sanctions against Russia for its aggression in Ukraine. Allies such as Belarus and China also have not imposed sanctions.
A Wednesday flight from Moscow to Belgrade was packed with young Russian men who said they could not speak to reporters because they feared negative repercussions for the families they left behind.
An elderly Russian woman, who identified herself as Yulia, said she, too, was afraid "my government and police" might see her remarks.
"But I want to say, 'Freedom for Ukraine.' Please, somebody stop Putin," she said.
In Armenia, Sergey arrived with his 17-year-old son, saying they had prepared for such a scenario. Another Russian, Valery, said his wife's family lives in Kyiv, and mobilization is out of the question for him "just for the moral aspect alone." Both men declined to give their last names.
'Now the war has come into their home'
Putin's mobilization gambit could backfire by making the war unpopular at home and hurting his own standing. It also concedes Russia's underlying military shortcomings.
A Ukrainian counteroffensive this month seized the military initiative from Russia and recaptured large areas in Ukraine from Russian forces.
The Russian mobilization is unlikely to produce any consequences on the battlefield for months because of a lack of training facilities and equipment.
Trudeau says Putin 'fundamentally miscalculated' West's capacity to respond to partial mobilization
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated Canada's support for Ukraine and said that the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin should not go unpunished.
Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said it seemed "an act of desperation."
"People will evade this mobilization in every possible way, bribe their way out of this mobilization, leave the country," he said.
He described the announcement as "a huge personal blow to Russian citizens, who until recently [took part in the hostilities] with pleasure, sitting on their couches, [watching] TV. And now the war has come into their home."
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