Perhaps the most disturbing news for the Kremlin in the last week has involved headlines far from Moscow — rare public expressions of anti-Russian sentiment in the far reaches of the Russian Federation. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his “partial mobilization” of troops, protests in these places have evolved quickly from confusion about the orders to fear and anger over potential deployment to Ukraine, and now — in some corners of the country — to calls for secession from Russia.
Such demands have been heard in Dagestan, a multiethnic republic in the southernmost tip of the country with a population of over 3 million, and in Bashkortostan, a republic of 4 million that straddles the southern edge of the Ural Mountains. Fury in other places has taken a variety of forms. In Yakutia, a vast, thinly populated region in the northeast, a local leader complained to the New York Times that those being drafted were the “reindeer herders, hunters and fishermen” upon whom the community depends. “We have so few of them anyway,” said Vyacheslav Shadrin, leader of an Indigenous group known as the Yukaghirs. “But they are the ones being drafted most of all.”
Why should anyone care about a flurry of anger and anti-Putin feeling in such faraway places?
For one thing, similar protests in the late 1980s, in the republics that once made up the USSR, sparked a chain reaction that became known as the “parade of sovereignties,” demands for independence that ultimately brought what Putin would call “the main geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” — the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Throughout the 22 years of Putin’s rule, the Kremlin has often touted the accomplishment of preventing a similar breakup within the Russian Federation — which includes 21 republics in which the majorities are not ethnic Russians. Indeed, keeping the republics together has been an impressive achievement; many of these places are utterly different from, say, the areas around Moscow or St. Petersburg. They have their own constitutions, parliaments and ethnic populations.
Putin’s mobilization — intended as a military measure and perhaps a way of placating the hard-line nationalists who have been demanding a tougher war — now threatens the stability and integrity of some of these far-flung regions. It has made at least some citizens remember one thing they do not buy into as members of the Russian Federation: an empire that forces them to go to war in faraway lands.
“Russia — get out!”
This weekend, the Bashkir National Political Center, until recently a little-known political organization in Bashkortostan, published an “appeal” to Kazakhstan, in which it requested help for citizens who were fleeing the mobilization. Kazakhstan was once the second-largest republic in the Soviet Union; now, it’s an independent nation that shares a border with Bashkortostan. The Bashkir appeal ended with these words:
“We believe that Putin’s imperial machine will break its back against the steel character and the will of the Ukrainian heroic people, and our republics will gain independence, just like you once did!”
Also on the weekend, the former deputy chief of Bashkortostan’s president’s office, Abbas Gallyamov, now an opposition figure living in exile, wrote that before the mobilization, people in Bashkortostan were politically quiet and certainly not speaking openly of a break with Russia. Putin’s announcement has changed that, he said, by galvanizing so many segments of the population.
“The Kremlin … created a situation,” Gallyamov wrote, “where most likely, it will not be possible to avoid a new wave of separatism now. The authorities themselves have created a massive demand for it.”
In Dagestan, where anti-mobilization protests began on Saturday and are continuing, opposition has run particularly high because so many of its own have been serving and dying in Ukraine; Dagestan has lost more men in Ukraine than any other region of Russia. Many in Dagestan believe the Kremlin has drawn heavily on its Muslim population for conscripts — as a way of avoiding drafting more ethnic Russians. In the last few days, Telegram channels in Dagestan have posted calls for secession from Russia and images of the “flag of independent Dagestan.”
“Wherever Russia is, there is devastation both in the minds, and in the houses, and in the streets,” one of these posts said. “It’s time to realize this and say: ‘Russia — get out of Dagestan!’”
Putin’s mobilization was intended to boost Russian strength in the war against Ukraine. It seems also to have been a catalyst for a powerful new dissent inside Russia itself.
“I don’t want to go!”
For seven months of war, the message from the Kremlin went like this: It’s a small thing, a necessary thing for our military to take care of. It’s not a “war”; it’s a “special military operation.” This phrasing was not only important for the way it sounded — mild, not so threatening — but also because it meant there would be no big call-up of troops. Such a mobilization was reserved for a “war.” And this was not a war.
The only moments when the Kremlin narrative looked questionable had come in the first month — when Russian forces made an ignominious retreat from the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv — and then in the early days of this month, when the Ukrainians sent Russian forces running from their positions in the Kharkiv region. But still the narrative persisted. It was all going to be OK.
Then came the Sept. 21 announcement. Putin said many things in that speech, but it was the mobilization that turned out to be a slap in the face for many who believed that the “special operation” was not a war and that any problems associated with it would be solved by contract soldiers.
Among my acquaintances in Russia, few had close friends or family members who had been called to fight. That was true until Sept. 21. Now they all have stories about cases of conscription close to home. They also tell stories of people getting called who should be exempt, according to the defense ministry’s own orders — those over 50 years old, those with serious medical problems and those with no prior military experience.
Certainly no one in Dagestan or Bashkortostan, or the other republics, was prepared for a scenario in which Russian recruitment officers would come hunting for all able-bodied young men.
In Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, several dozen women tried to hold a rally against mobilization. All of them were detained. The pro-Kremlin head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, called the women who took to the square “enemies of the people” and said he would send their relatives to the war. The next day, however, Kadyrov said that Chechnya had already sent its best fighters to Ukraine; therefore, there would be no mobilization there.
This apparent double standard set off fury in other republics — above all in Dagestan, where serious clashes with the police erupted in the republic’s capital, Makhachkala. Hundreds of women took to the streets to protest the forced conscription of their sons and husbands.
On Monday, in Ust-Ilimsk, Siberia, a 25-year-old man shot the chief of the local military enlistment office. On the same day in Uryupinsk, in southern Russia, a 35-year-old Russian threw Molotov cocktails at the local military registration headquarters. And a few hours after that, at the bus station in Ryazan, in central Russia, a man set himself on fire, shouting, “I don’t want to go to the front!”
The Kremlin response: “All errors will be corrected”
What exactly happened after the president’s address to the nation? The answer seems to have been different in different parts of the country.
People began to receive subpoenas from military enlistment offices on the following morning. My Facebook friends and acquaintances in Moscow wrote that subpoenas were slipped under apartment doors and traffic police officers handed them to drivers. A man went to his local draft board to make inquiries and clarify the orders; he was conscripted on the spot. In offices and at factories, men of military age were asked to report the dates of their service and military specialty. Russian men and their families realized that they were no longer distant spectators, hearing occasionally about a “special military operation.” Now, they were direct participants in a very real war.
In many parts of the country, the response was panic.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the initial reaction of Russians to the mobilization “hysterical and extremely emotional.” Not surprisingly, the crackdown has been swift. More than 2,000 protesters detained; Moscow’s military commissar threatened any lawyers who offered to help draft dodgers with criminal punishment; and three days after the announcement, Putin signed a law that established prison terms of up to 10 years for desertion, failure to appear for conscription or refusing to participate in combat.
What was surprising was a defensive tone from the Kremlin — even a degree of humility — as it acknowledged some mistakes in the implementation of Putin’s orders.
“There are cases when the decree has been violated,” Peskov told reporters. “In some regions, governors are actively working to correct the situation.”
And then — a word of reassurance: “All errors will be corrected.”
A race for the borders
On Sept. 24, three days after Putin’s announcement, word spread that Russia would close its borders on Wednesday to any citizens potentially suitable for mobilization. Not surprisingly, that deadline sent a lot of people racing for various frontiers.
The most popular destinations were visa-free countries — Georgia and Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. In one day, airfare prices to these countries more than doubled. A ticket to Turkey purchased on Sept. 20 went for $700; by Sept. 22 it was $2,000. You can fly from Moscow to Dubai today; when I checked, the cheapest one-way fare was $4,500.
Those who cannot afford the flights have been getting in their cars. Traffic jams have formed on the borders with Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Georgia and Finland. Look closely at the license plates, and you see these are people from Moscow and Chelyabinsk, from Dagestan and Chechnya, Rostov-on-Don and Krasnodar, Ufa, Komi and Tatarstan — people from all over the country trying to save themselves or save their sons, husbands, brothers from a trip to the front lines in Ukraine.
Those trying to leave Russia are coordinating and communicating via Telegram channel chats — where you can find people looking for rides, sharing tips and experiences of crossing the border, and so on. Someone stood for more than a day, someone else for 15 hours, and someone was lucky to “slip through” in a few hours. The queues at the border with Georgia stretched for 30 kilometers (18 miles); people were running out of gas and water.
Meanwhile, Russian propaganda has already taken aim at those Western countries willing to host the new arrivals. The Kremlin-friendly Svobodnaya Pressa published an article titled: “Visas for traitors and cowards: Europe is ready to let in draft evaders from Russia.”
Here’s a flavor of the commentary on the Telegram channel of the propaganda publication Bloknot:
“They are nobody to worry about! Cowards are running away. … Why the hell do we need them at the front? It’s just that our Motherland is being cleansed!”
“Whoever betrayed their homeland will betray someone else’s, and no one will need these low people.”
“When the rats run from the ship, it stops sinking! The country will be cleansed.”
What comes next
There are no objective public opinion surveys in Russia now, but based on a flood of information on social networks and, most importantly, on personal communication with acquaintances who remain in Russia, I can state the following:
It is clear that not everyone is protesting against the mobilization; there are those who are collecting their belongings and marching dutifully to the recruiting stations. There are still many who approve of everything they hear from the Kremlin and are ready to send their sons to the front.
But it is also clear that there are many who see Putin’s mobilization as a break in the unspoken social contract — “loyalty in exchange for security.” These are people who were ready to approve and support the hostilities that were going on somewhere far away — but who are absolutely not ready for these hostilities to affect them personally.
In the end, the mobilization order may prove to be Putin’s most unpopular decision in the 22 years since he arrived in the Kremlin. It has already robbed him of his main achievement, his main promise to the people of Russia: stability in the country. And now, given the growing discontent in the national republics, the future of the Russian Federation itself — the “one and indivisible” Russia, as Putin himself has called it — may be under threat as well.
Tamara Ivanova contributed reporting. Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.