Russia begins mobilizing troops for Ukraine; Many flee from Putin’s invitation

According to the Russian military, at least 10,000 people have voluntarily gone to war within 24 hours since the order was given.

Moscow:

Moscow began a mandatory call-up of troops on Thursday to bolster its faltering military operation in Ukraine. Authorities say thousands have volunteered even as Russian men fled the country to avoid forced combat.

Amateur footage posted on social media after President Vladimir Putin ordered the mobilization of reservists on Wednesday purportedly shows hundreds of Russian citizens across the country responding to military calls.

The call came as Ukraine’s regions under Moscow’s control are due to vote in the coming days on whether to become part of Russia in referendums that Kiev and its allies have called an illegal land grab.

Moscow took the steps after Ukrainian forces recaptured most of the northeastern Kharkiv region in what has been seen as a possible turning point in the seven-month-old war that has been deadlocked.

The Russian military said Thursday that at least 10,000 people had volunteered to fight in the 24 hours since the order was given, but the men also rushed to leave Russia before they could join up.

“I don’t want to go to war,” said a man named Dmitri, who had flown to Armenia with only one small bag. “I don’t want to die in this senseless war. It’s a fratricidal war.”

– adding “vote” –

At the Armenian airport, the majority of those arriving from Moscow on the last flight were men of military age, and many did not want to speak.

Yerevan has become the main destination for Russians fleeing since the war began on February 24, prompting fierce international opposition aimed at isolating Russia.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for Putin to be held accountable Thursday, confronting Russia at a Security Council session where the United Nations cataloged violations in Ukraine.

“We cannot – we will not – let President Putin get away with this,” Blinken told the Security Council in a special session at the United Nations.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whom Blinken has refused to meet individually since the February invasion, rejected the Western accusations.

“Today they are trying to impose on us a completely different narrative about Russian aggression as the original source of this tragedy,” Lavrov told the Security Council.

The standoff in the diplomatic arena escalated as officials stationed in the Kremlin for regions of Ukraine controlled by Moscow’s forces vowed on Thursday to resume annexation polls this week.

Four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine – Donetsk and Luhansk in the east and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south – said they would hold votes within five days from Friday.

Vladimir Saldo, the Moscow-appointed leader of Kherson, which fell early in the Russian invasion, said the referendum would be held in his region despite criticism.

“The date is set. We have the green light. Voting will start tomorrow and nothing can stop it,” he told Russian state media.

“People have been waiting and demanding that this vote be held soon,” he added.

Western leaders gathered in New York this week unanimously condemned the ballots.

Speaking at the UN, US President Joe Biden accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of “shamelessly” violating the UN Charter with a war aimed at “erasing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state”.

– “Everyone would like to leave” –

Integrating the war-torn regions with Russia would mean a major escalation of the conflict, as Moscow could then claim to be defending its territory from Ukrainian forces.

After the vote was announced by his proxies in Ukraine, Putin announced that Russia would call up about 300,000 reservists to bolster the military effort and warned that Moscow would use “all means” to defend its territory.

Former Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev said in a statement on social media that these tools included “strategic nuclear weapons.” He predicted that the voting districts would “integrate with Russia.”

For most observers, the results of the simultaneous votes are already known and were rushed as Ukrainian forces made major gains in their counteroffensive to retake the east.

The referendums are reminiscent of a similar ballot in 2014 that annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula to Russia. Western capitals said the vote was a fraud and hit Moscow with sanctions in response.

Election officials in the Donetsk region, which has been partially controlled by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014, said voting would be door-to-door in the first few days. But this would be possible in polling stations only on the last day, Tuesday.

Putin’s move this week to call up reservists to Ukraine sparked small protests across Russia, resulting in the detention of more than 1,300 people.

Flights from Russia to neighboring countries, mainly former Soviet republics that allow Russians visa-free entry, are almost fully booked and prices have soared, suggesting an exodus of Russians seeking to avoid war.

Lost and looking exhausted in the arrivals hall of the Armenian capital’s airport, Sergei, 44, said he fled Russia to avoid being drafted.

“The situation in Russia would make anyone want to leave,” he told AFP on condition of anonymity.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published on a syndicated channel.)