More than 1,300 people were detained across Russia on Wednesday for participating in nationwide anti-war protests – with some directly conscripted into the military, according to a monitoring group, after leader Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of citizens for his faltering invasion of Ukraine.
Images and videos show police cracking down on demonstrators in multiple cities, with footage showing several protesters at a demonstration in central Moscow being carried away by the police and authorities in St. Petersburg attempting to contain a crowd chanting “no mobilization” outside Isakiivskiy Cathedral.
Police detained the protesters across 38 cities in Russia on Wednesday, according to figures released shortly after midnight by independent monitoring group OVD-Info. The group’s spokeswoman Maria Kuznetsova said in a phone call with CNN that at at least four police stations in Moscow some of the protesters arrested by riot police were being drafted directly into Russia’s military.
One of the detainees has been threatened with prosecution for refusing to be drafted, she said. The government has said that punishment for refusing the draft is now 15 years in jail. Of the more than 1,300 people detained nationwide, more than 500 were in Moscow and over 520 in St. Petersburg, according to OVD-Info.
The demonstrations followed a morning address by Putin, in which he laid out a plan that raises the stakes of his war in Ukraine, including for the Russian people, at a time when a sudden counteroffensive from Kyiv has recaptured thousands of square miles of territory and put Moscow on the backfoot. Experts say its forces have been significantly depleted.
The announced “partial mobilization” would see 300,000 reservists called up, according to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Putin said those with military experience would be subject to conscription, and stressed that the decree – which was already signed – was necessary to “protect our homeland, its sovereignty and its territorial integrity.”
The decree itself does not apply solely to reservists. It allows the “call up [of] citizens of the Russian Federation for military service by mobilization into the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.”
Putin raised the specter of nuclear weapons during his address, saying he would use “all the means at our disposal,” if he deemed the “territorial integrity” of Russia to be jeopardized. He also endorsed referendums on joining Russia that Russian-appointed leaders in four occupied regions of Ukraine announced they would hold this week.
Concern among Russian citizens was palpable on Wednesday, with travel agency websites showing a dramatic increase in the demand for flights to places where Russians do not need a visa. Flight sale websites indicate direct flights to such countries sold out through Friday at least.
The protests, most of which appeared to have attracted a few dozen people, were another strong signal of the desperation felt by some. Dissent is typically swiftly crushed in Russia and authorities have placed further constraints on free speech following the invasion of Ukraine.
Footage from social media showed several protesters in Ulan Ude in eastern Siberia carrying signs reading “No to war! No to mobilization!” and “Our husbands, fathers, and brothers do not want to kill other husbands and fathers!”
“We want our fathers, husbands, and brothers to remain alive … and not to leave their children as orphans. Stop the war and don’t take our people!” one protester said.
Video from Yekaterinburg in western Russia showed police scuffling with several protesters. CNN could not independently verify the footage from either city.
Another video posted by a journalist from the Moscow internet publication The Village shows dozens of people in Arbatskaya street chanting “Let him go” as one man is carried away.
The Moscow prosecutor’s office on Wednesday also warned citizens against joining protests or distributing information calling for participation – reminding people that they could face up to 15 years in jail.
Putin’s “partial mobilization” announcement was condemned by Western leaders, many of whom were meeting at the opening of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York.
In a rare joint statement, British Prime Minister Liz Truss and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, said Wednesday that both agree Putin’s announcement of a partial mobilization of Russian citizens is a sign of “weakness.”
Ukraine remained defiant in the face of the announcement, with President Volodymyr Zelensky telling the UNGA in a pre-recorded address Wednesday that Russia was “afraid of real (peace) negotiations,” and pointed to what he characterized as Russian “lies.”
Russia “talks about the talks but announces a military mobilization,” Zelensky said. “Russia wants war.”