On Wednesday evening, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a new phase of the war in Ukraine: a partial mobilisation of the population.
Although hardliners had been calling for such a move since the very beginning, the government has tried to present the conflict as a contained “special military operation” rather than something that will affect citizens directly. That may be about to change.
In an interview with the TV channel Russia 24, Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu said that Russia had 25 million able-bodied men at its disposal but will only call on 300,000 with military experience. They will be given additional training before being sent to the front, and will not include students or former conscripts.
Shoigu also claimed that 5,397 Russian soldiers had died in the conflict.
On Wednesday – without any public debate or discussion – the Duma adopted a law imposing penalties for looting, refusing to fight, surrender and desertion.
The new rules are applicable during mobilisation, wartime and martial law – so far, the government has been reluctant to refer to the invasion of Ukraine as a war, using the term “special military operation” instead. According to the new decree, reservists will be treated the same as regular, contract soldiers should they fail to report for duty.
“They are losing the war, and they want to do something not to lose it,” Oleg Ignatov, a Moscow-based analyst for Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera.
“I think the main problem is they have a shortage of personnel on the ground – they don’t have enough soldiers to attack Ukraine, or even protect the occupied areas. They want to close the gap with the Ukrainians and that’s why they declared the mobilisation.”
Because of recent setbacks, the Russian military has had to look for manpower elsewhere.
Footage recently leaked to social media that showed oligarch and alleged head of the mercenary outfit Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, at a prison colony, telling convicts if they were ready to serve a six-month tour of duty that they would be released.
“It’s either private military companies and prisoners [fighting in Ukraine], or your children,” Prigozhin later said in a statement.
Earlier, journalists in Kyrgyzstan uncovered a social media campaign hiring “security guards” to work in Ukraine, in return for 240,000 rubles ($4,383) a month and a simplified path to Russian citizenship. It was soon apparent this was another recruitment drive from Wagner.
Kyrgyzstan and its neighbours Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are a source of migrant workers to Russia. On Wednesday, the Kyrgyz embassy in Moscow warned its compatriots that getting involved in a conflict on behalf of a foreign power may be a crime back home.
Although tens of thousands of Syrian and other foreign fighters were supposedly enlisted to fight on Moscow’s behalf earlier this year, a significant foreign legion does not yet appear to have materialised.
While the government has promised that only those with military experience would be called up, in practice nothing legally prevents those without it from also being enlisted. In response, the Spring youth democratic movement called for renewed demonstrations against mobilisation in the centres of Moscow, St Petersburg and all Russian cities.
“Vladimir Putin has just announced a partial mobilisation in Russia. This means that thousands of Russian men – our fathers, brothers and husbands – will be thrown into the meat grinder of war,” Spring wrote on their Instagram page.
“Now war will truly come to every home and every family. The authorities used to say that only ‘professionals’ were fighting and that they would win. It turned out that they were not winning – and prisoners began to be recruited to the front. The war is no longer ‘out there’ – it has come to our country, our homes, for our relatives.
The deputies and officials who daily yelled about the need for mobilisation will remain in their warm chairs, alive and well. We believe that they should be mobilised and sent to Ukraine – let them die for their sick fantasies, and not send ordinary guys to their deaths.”
As if anticipating this, pro-Kremlin commentator Ilya Remeslo wrote on his Telegram that “reliable sources” informed him that those taking part in “illegal rallies” would be the first to be mobilised.
“They will check the documents immediately on the spot, identify them, detain them and send them to the internal affairs agencies,” he claimed. “Then, together with military registration and recruitment, the draftee’s category will be determined. Those who do not immediately fit the first category [of 300,000 experienced soldiers] will be registered for subsequent conscription.”
“So, we are waiting for you, dear hamsters,” he added. “It’s time to serve.”
On Wednesday evening, demonstrations took place in cities across Russia, although they appeared to be smaller than the ones in February.
Ivan Zhdanov, a close ally of imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny, said the Navalny team was ready to support any and all anti-war actions: “If you are ready to do bigger things, including setting fire to military recruitment offices, we are also ready to provide some assistance.”
But he said major protests were unlikely as Russian society is so atomised.
“There is no solidarity in Russian society, and no unity. There is no civil society, and Russia hasn’t had free elections since the 2000s,” he said.
“I think they will try to prevent any protests, and whoever opposes the mobilisation will be severely punished. But I think people will try to sabotage this decision. Males will want to avoid the mobilisation, to hide from the people trying to draft them or try to leave the country.”
According to Google Trends, in the hours before Putin’s announcement the question “how to leave Russia” spiked on search engines, as did “how to break an arm”. On Wednesday, all flights to Istanbul and nearly all flights to Yerevan were sold out.
But fleeing overseas is not an option for everyone. Those soldiers who have, up to now, been avoiding deployment to Ukraine by using the loophole that it is not a declared war – meaning they are not obliged to take part – now find that door shut.
NN, a platoon commander who agreed to speak to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said he wrote a letter of resignation but they the army would not accept it.
“And if I don’t go join the special operation now, they’ll put me in jail because of the mobilisation. In general, the process of dismissal from our army is very complicated – you can’t quit just like that,” he said. ”
The order [to deploy] has already come and I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to go; the interests of the state do not coincide with the interests of the public. Many others [in the army] share my opinion.”
But others are more resigned to the prospect of being deployed.
“This affects me directly because of my age, I served and I’ve the right training, so I match all the criteria except maybe the fact that the navy isn’t particularly useful [in Ukraine],” said 35-year-old Valentin from St Petersburg, who served in the navy from 2009-2010.
“Some of the other guys have different opinions. Someone wants to leave [the country], but most of us will go if we’re told. I’m not afraid. If I get the notice, I’ll go, but I’m in no hurry, either.”