Moscow began its mandatory call for troops on Thursday to try to bolster a stumbling war effort in Ukraine, with authorities saying thousands had volunteered even as Russian men fled the country to avoid being forced to to fight.
Amateur footage posted on social media since President Vladimir Putin ordered the mobilization of reservists on Wednesday claimed to show hundreds of Russian citizens across the country responding to military summonses.
The call came as Ukrainian regions controlled by Moscow are due to vote in the coming days on whether to join Russia in referendums that have been branded an illegal land grab by Kyiv and its allies.
Moscow took the action after Ukrainian forces retook most of the northeast Kharkiv region, which was seen as a possible turning point in the deadlocked seven-month war.
The Russian military said Thursday that at least 10,000 people had volunteered to fight in the 24 hours since the order, but men also rushed to leave Russia before being forced to join it.
“I don’t want to go to war,” a man named Dmitri, who flew to Armenia with just one small bag, told AFP.
“I don’t want to die in this senseless war. It’s a fratricidal war.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday called on Russians to resist the partial mobilization announced by President Vladimir Putin, which has sparked protests and a new exodus from the country.
“55,000 Russian soldiers have died during these six months of war…”, declared Mr. Zelenskyy in his daily address.
“Do you want more? No? So protest. Fight back. Flee. Or surrender” to the Ukrainian army.
“You are already complicit in all these crimes, murders and tortures of Ukrainians. Because you kept quiet. Because you kept quiet,” Mr Zelenskyy added.
“And now it is time for you to choose: for men in Russia, it is a choice to die or to live, to become crippled or to preserve health.
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Source: AAP / Ukrinform/ABACA/PA
“For women in Russia, the choice is to lose their husbands, sons, grandchildren forever, or to try to protect them from death, from war, from one person (Putin),” he said. he continued.
More than 1,300 people were arrested in protests across Russia on Wednesday after a partial mobilization was announced.
There were also reports of a mass exodus following the announcement.
Flights from Russia to neighboring countries that allow Russians to enter visa-free were almost fully booked, while prices soared.
On Thursday, the Kremlin called it “false” reports that Russians eligible for mobilization were rushing out.
Men of military age made up the majority of those arriving from the last flight from Moscow to the Armenian airport and many were reluctant to speak.
Yerevan has become a major destination for fleeing Russians since the war began on February 24, attracting fierce international opposition that aims to isolate Russia.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanded accountability from Putin on Thursday as he clashed with Russia in a Security Council session in which the United Nations cataloged abuses in Ukraine.
“We can’t – we don’t want to – let President Putin off the hook,” Blinken told the Security Council during a special session as the leaders met at the United Nations.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – whom Mr Blinken has refused to meet individually since the February invasion – blasted the Western accusations.
“There is an attempt today to impose a completely different narrative on us about Russian aggression as the origin of this tragedy,” Lavrov told the Security Council.
Russian police detain a protester during an unauthorized rally on September 21. Source: Getty / (Photo by Contributor/Getty Images)
Mr Lavrov was the only one in the council chamber to deliver his speech at the meeting of the 15-member body, which was attended by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Mr. Lavrov did not listen to anyone else speak.
“I noticed today that Russian diplomats are fleeing as well as Russian forces,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said during the Security Council meeting on accountability in Ukraine.
The council, which was meeting on Ukraine for at least the 20th time this year, was unable to take meaningful action because Russia is a permanent member with veto power along with the United States. , France, Great Britain and China.
Lavrov accused Kyiv of threatening Russia’s security and “brazenly trampling” on the rights of Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine, adding that it all “just confirms that the decision to carry out the special military operation was inevitable”.
Mr Kuleba, from Ukraine, said: “The number of lies coming from Russian diplomats is quite extraordinary.”
Lavrov said the countries supplying arms to Ukraine and training its soldiers were parties to the conflict, adding that “the intentional fomentation of this conflict by the Western collective goes unpunished.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov leaves after addressing the UN Security Council meeting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Source: Getty / (Photo by BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP via Getty Images)
The confrontation on the diplomatic scene intensified as Kremlin-installed officials in Ukrainian regions controlled by Moscow forces vowed on Thursday to go ahead with annexation elections this week.
Four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine – Donetsk and Lugansk in the east and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south – have announced they will hold the votes over five days, starting Friday.
Vladimir Saldo, the Moscow-based Kherson leader who fell early in the Russian invasion, said the referendum would go ahead in his region regardless of criticism.
“The date has been set. We have the green light. Voting starts tomorrow and nothing can prevent it,” he told Russian media.
“People are waiting and they are demanding that this vote take place soon,” he added.
Western leaders gathered in New York this week unanimously condemned the polls.
Speaking at the UN, US President Joe Biden accused Mr Putin of ‘shamelessly’ violating the UN Charter with a war aimed at ‘stifling Ukraine’s right to exist as a state’ .
“Anyone would like to leave”
Incorporating the war-torn regions into Russia would represent a further escalation of the conflict, as Moscow could then try to say it was defending its own territory against Ukrainian forces.
After the votes were announced by his proxies in Ukraine, President Putin announced that Russia would call up some 300,000 reservists to bolster the war effort and warned that Moscow would use “all means” to protect its territory.
Former Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev said in a statement on social media that those means included “strategic nuclear weapons”. I predicted that the electoral regions “will integrate into Russia”.
For most observers, the results of the simultaneous votes are already a foregone conclusion and were rushed because Ukrainian forces were making considerable gains in a counteroffensive to retake the east.
The referendums recall a similar ballot in 2014 which saw Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula annexed by Russia. Western nations said the vote was fraudulent and hit Moscow with sanctions in response.
Election officials in the Donetsk region, partially controlled since 2014 by Moscow-backed separatists, said voting would be door-to-door for the first few days. But this would only be possible in the polling stations on the last day, Tuesday.
A woman reacts after a rocket attack, killing 6 civilians, at a market in Ukraine’s Donetsk oblast on September 22, 2022 as the Russian-Ukrainian war continues. Source: Getty / (Photo by Leon Klein/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Mr Putin’s decision this week to call up reservists for Ukraine sparked protests across Russia and mass arrests.
Flights from Russia to neighboring countries, mainly former Soviet republics which allow Russians to enter visa-free, are almost fully booked and prices have soared, indicating an exodus of Russians keen to avoid go to war.
Looking lost and exhausted in the arrivals hall of the Armenian capital’s airport, Sergei, 44, said he fled Russia to escape the roll call.
“The situation in Russia would make anyone want to leave,” he told AFP on condition of anonymity.