RIGA, Latvia — In just two days since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced mobilization to help his ailing war in Ukraine, thousands of men have been chased down by recruiters, in some cases rounded up in the middle of the night, and swiftly loaded onto buses and planes to be sent off for military training and, presumably, deployment to the front lines.
And despite assurances by the authorities of a “partial” mobilization, limited to reservists with prior military experience, the initial haphazard call-up process has sparked fears that Putin is trying to activate far more soldiers than the 300,000 initially stated by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
“It’s just hell here; they are grabbing everyone,” a resident of Sosnovo-Ozerskoye, a rural settlement of about 6,000 people in the eastern Siberian region of Buryatia near Russia’s border with Mongolia, wrote to Victoria Maldeva, an activist with the Free Buryatia Foundation who has collected hundreds of reports about mass mobilization.
“Drunk men who are supposed to leave the very same day are roaming the town square,” the Sosnovo-Ozerskoye resident wrote. “Everyone knows each other here. This is impossible to bear. Women are crying, chasing the bus, and men pleaded for forgiveness before they left as they know they are facing certain death.”
The Free Buryatia Foundation and similar activists working in Yakutia, another remote, impoverished region of Russia, in northeastern Siberia, said they were concerned that the mobilization is disproportionately targeting ethnic minorities that live in these areas, many thousands of miles from Moscow.
“When it comes to Buryatia, this is not a partial mobilization, this is a total mobilization,” the head of the Free Buryatia Foundation, Alexandra Garmazhapova, said in a television interview. “And it amazes me how people who know how much Vladimir Putin likes to lie believed that this will be a partial mobilization.”
Garmazhapova said her volunteers stayed up all night on Wednesday and Thursday helping men, some as old as 62, who were awakened by schoolteachers forced to go door-to-door in Buryatian villages at night and hand notices.
The rights workers said they believed that Russian military recruiters are focusing their efforts in rural and remote areas, rather than big cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg, because a lack of media outlets and protest activity makes it easier for them to enforce recruitment orders and to appease the regional leaders seeking to curry favor with Putin. The Asian ethnic populations of Siberia and the Russian Far East are also less likely to have personal and family connections to Ukraine.
In Moscow, however, recruiters found a new source of readily available recruits: demonstrators detained during antiwar rallies this week. A reporter for SOTA Vision outlet, Artem Kriger, was detained on Wednesday as he was wrapping up a live broadcast from one of the capital’s central streets.
Later, in the police station, Kriger and more than a dozen other men arrested with him were handed summonses ordering them to appear at their local military commissariats. On Friday, Kriger was also sentenced to an eight-day jail sentence after a judge found him guilty of taking part in an unauthorized rally.
Military analysts say it is far from clear that Russia’s military setbacks can be reversed simply by sending hundreds of thousands of new fighters to the front. Russia is also running short of weapons and other supplies, and has lost several commanders in the nearly seven-month-long war.
The initial disarray and confusion in the mobilization effort, and the public anger, confirmed the risk of a societal backlash that had prompted Putin to resist imposing compulsory service in the war until recent setbacks made it clear that Russia was at risk of being defeated. But large numbers of untrained, unmotivated, and ill-equipped soldiers are unlikely to reverse Russia’s losses, experts said.
Several videos posted online on Friday morning showed busloads of agitated, and apparently drunk, men who had received call-up notices brawling with one another. The videos, which could not be independently verified, highlighted the potential lack of morale and discipline of Russia’s newest fighters.
In Dagestan, a majority-Muslim region in the north Caucasus where Russian media reported that the official goal was to gather 13,000 men at enlistment offices, a group of men engaged in a shouting match with a local recruiter, a woman who tried to shame them for being unwilling to join the war effort.
“These kids will be fighting for their future,” the woman shouted at a group of about 30 men who had gathered outside a local commissariat, according to a clip posted by the “Observers of Dagestan” movement.
“What future? We don’t even have a present,” one of the men shouted back. “Go fight yourself if you want to. We don’t!”
At another recruitment station, in the small city of Yekaterinoslavka in the Far East Amur region, northeast of the Russia-China border, an officer yelled at a group of angry, resentful men who had been summoned. “Why are you crying like little girls,” the officer told a disgruntled crowd according to a video recorded covertly. “Playtime is over. You are all soldiers now.”
The Russian Defense Ministry on Friday sought to ease the chaos and anger gripping the country by sending out “clarifications” to state-run news outlets on who qualified for the call-up. But that did little to quell the panic as multiple reports emerged of men who qualified for exemptions nonetheless receiving summonses.
Pavel Chikov, the head of a human rights group, Agora, which is helping Russians find legal ways to be spared from serving in the war, reported multiple cases in which men above the stated mobilization age of 55 had received summonses.
“The Ministry of Defense has been busy for two days in a row, trying to reassure the population,” Chikov posted in his Telegram channel. “But it is important that these ‘official statements’ are just the work of the press service, and not actual decrees, which are all for official use and secret.
“District military commissars do not read Telegram, they have lists sent to them from the center, and they will continue to fill buses, assembly stations and planes with people,” he wrote.
Alexander Dorzhiev, 38, from Ulan-Ude, a city in Buryatia about 150 miles from the border with Mongolia, received a notice on Wednesday morning and was ordered to show up the next day at 4 a.m. at a local recruiting station, and to leave his hometown just a few hours later.
As the father of five small children, Dorzhiev should be exempt from military service, according to Russian laws. Amid public uproar, the governor of Buryatia, Alexey Tsydenov, said 70 fathers who should have been exempted were summoned but later released from the commissariats.
The chaos brought sharp criticism even from some supporters of Putin’s government.
“This just shows the quality of the way our enlistment offices work,” pro-Kremlin journalist and politician Andrey Medvedev wrote on Telegram, criticizing the mobilization procedure in Russia. “This leads to panic in the rear, hysterical moods and massive social tension. Mobilization should strengthen the army, not cause upheaval.”
Adding to the national panic was the Kremlin’s acknowledgment that a secret paragraph in the mobilization decree signed by Putin on Wednesday dealt with the number of soldiers Russia is aiming to call up.
Novaya Gazeta Europe reported Thursday, citing a source in the presidential administration, that the clause envisioned activating 1 million people. Another Russian outlet, Meduza, reported that the number could be as high as 1.2 million. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called both reports “a lie” but did not provide a corrected figure.
Pro-Kremlin bloggers and Instagram accounts launched a hashtag #NoToPanic on Russian social media platforms. They published nearly identical posts insisting that “only 1 percent of reservists will be called up” — in what appeared to be a coordinated effort to debunk the reports that the real recruitment target is far higher than 300,000.
“Would one french fry be enough for you to get full? I think everyone would say no, that’s just 1 percent of your portion,” blogger Anna Belozerova wrote on VKontakte, a Russian social networking platform. “You rightly guessed that I am talking about mobilization that everyone is panicking about. We all need to stay calm! It will be just 300,000 people, 1 percent of reservists.”
Yet Russians seeking to avoid military service continued to flock to the country’s borders, fearing that even if they were spared this week, they might be ensnared in the next mobilization wave.
With flights almost entirely sold out, most are crossing land borders by car or on foot, although the opportunity to escape to Europe appeared to narrow. Finland, the only remaining E.U. land border open to Russians, said Friday it would stop Russians with tourist visas from crossing in the next few days.
Robyn Dixon and Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.
The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.