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October 1, 2022
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Russians scramble to buy flights as Putin’s escalation in Ukraine fuels unease at home

Russians scramble to buy flights as Putin’s escalation in Ukraine fuels unease at home

“The news was worse than I expected,” said Andrei, 30, a financial analyst in Moscow who similarly declined to provide his last name out of fear for his safety. “I am stupefied by the degree of absurdity and madness to which we now bear witness.”

Protesters took to the streets across the country to voice their opposition to the move. By Wednesday night, 1,311 people in 38 cities had been detained under Russia’s anti-protest laws, according to the independent OVD-Info protest monitoring group.

It said those figures included at least 502 in Moscow and 524 in St Petersburg, Russia’s second most populous city.

Throughout Putin’s tenure, the Kremlin has fostered a reputation for testing the limits of an arrangement in which Russian citizens largely agree to stay out of politics if the state stays out of their lives. But it has always demonstrated a sense of restraint, a hesitation to take things too far and risk sparking a broad-scale backlash. 

With his military in retreat and Ukraine advancing, analysts said Putin appears to have made the largest political gamble of his career.

“The social contract has been violated,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“In the medium term, this is a problem for the public’s trust in Putin and his regime. In the short term, they are not going to get serious protests but rather sabotage,” he said, referring to the potential for people who are drafted to undermine the war effort.

The declaration Wednesday is only the third time in Russian history that the government has called for military mobilization. The two others were in 1914 and 1941, during the First and Second World Wars.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke in televised remarks just after Putin.AP

Although the Kremlin insists the mobilization is “limited” to 300,000 reservists, the wording of the order doesn’t specify or enforce any meaningful limitation on draft orders.

That has left many rushing to figure out whether they are about to be called up.

“The presidential decree is purposefully vague about the expected number of draftees, their qualifications and overall draft period, which means the scope can always be widened,” said Andrei, the financial analyst. He added that he didn’t expect to be called up in the first wave but fully expected to be sent into battle if the war goes on long enough.

Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst and the founder of the political consulting firm R.Politik, said: “There are a lot of signals that this will become a significant social and political issue for Putin. People are searching on Google for things such as ‘How to leave the country,’ ‘What is mobilization?’ and ‘Who can be called up?’”

Not all Russians are alarmed by the prospect of being drafted, however.

For weeks now, as Ukraine successfully staged two counteroffensives that put Putin’s military on its back foot, pro-war activists have been calling for the Kremlin to take the gloves off — criticizing the way much of Russian society has been allowed to sit on the sidelines. 

Alexander, 32, of Moscow, said he wasn’t worried about being called up. “Well, it’s OK,” he said. “We will go fight a little.” Alexander, who declined to give his last name, said that he has military experience — he was a T-90 tank commander — and that he was prepared to go fight. 

In the first days and weeks of the conflict, there was a real sense of shock in Russia as the country became a global pariah abandoned by Western businesses.

But, over time and with ample encouragement from the Kremlin, the general public was able to carry on with life and not think too much about the war. In Moscow and St. Petersburg especially, the summer of 2022 was enjoyed much like any other. 

The war felt a world away. Now, rather suddenly, the war feels quite close to home.

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