Until this week, Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine war had been almost completely invisible to most Muscovites.
The rominent “Z” signs – the war’s symbol – had disappeared from awnings, shop windows and even private cars in Russia’s capital by April.
Closed-down branches of McDonald’s and Starbucks were replaced by local lookalikes. Restaurants, cafes and nightclubs continued a roaring trade. After a short period of panic buying at the beginning of the war, supermarket shelves were full and the ruble even rose to new heights.
Citywide festivities continued as normal, and with the exception of a handful of shows deemed “unpatriotic” by a new duma committee, the theaters were packed too.
“Moscow is an enchanted kingdom where everything is completely, completely normal and nothing bad is happening anywhere,” joked one prominent Moscow theater producer. “Definitely in no way the capital of a country fighting the biggest war of the 21st century.”
On Wednesday that illusion came crashing down in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s belligerent speech announcing partial mobilisation.
For millions of Russians who had willfully ignored the conflict, the war in Ukraine suddenly went from near-invisible to urgent and personal.
Though Putin and Sergei Shoigu, his defense minister, went to great lengths to emphasize that the call-up of what could now be a million military reservists concerned just “people with military experience” and that “students have no need to worry”, the sudden call to arms of mostly unwilling men came, in the Russian phrase, like a thunderclap from a clear sky.
“Every Russian knows that when the government says it definitely isn’t going to do something, it’s about to do it,” said Irina Bukova (43), a Moscow psychologist whose 48-year-old partner did his compulsory military service in the early 1990s.
“They say the mobilization is just of former professional soldiers. But everyone is talking about how the next step will be of anyone who ever had military training of any sort.”
According to Ms Bukina, one neighbor reported that her recently graduated architect son and all his classmates – who had compulsory military training as sappers at university – had got call-up papers.
Introducing even partial mobilization has been a move that the Kremlin had strenuously avoided until now, with Mr Putin making a solemn promise on International Women’s Day on March 8 that conscripts “do not and will not participate in hostilities”.
But a nationwide recruiting campaign, both by the Russian Army and by the Kremlin-affiliated Wagner Group private military firm, has clearly failed to produce sufficient volunteers – despite offering signing bonuses equivalent to several months’ pay and actively recruiting thieves and murderers from Russian prisons . The Kremlin’s attempt to fight the war with an army of expendables had failed.
On Moscow’s Old Arbat street, around two hundred mostly young people assembled for a protest. Many wore masks to avoid being spotted by facial-recognition cameras.
“No to War!” they chanted in unison before riot police moved in with lightning speed to bundle them into waiting buses. “I am not afraid of anything more,” said Maria, a middle-aged woman who had joined the protest, adding: “I will not give my children to fight this bloody war!”
Another young woman, who clung to two male friends as police dragged them away, shouted: “Putin is a traitor! He has ruined Russia!”
According to the OVD-info human rights organisation, 1,300 people were detained at protests in more than 30 Russian cities with most being released after paying fines of up to £700 (€800). But many military-age male protesters were not so lucky.
Several opposition activists, including Kirill Goncharov, a senior member of the Yabloko party, have published photos of call-up papers ordering them to report to draft offices.
Conscripts are still not eligible for front-line military service in Ukraine – but army service is clearly being used as a punishment for dissent.
“It was only to be expected that [authorities] started using mobilization from day one to put pressure on the protesters,” said Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora association of human rights lawyers.
Vladimir Solovyov, a Kremlin propagandist, promised on his Telegram channel that all opponents of the regime would find themselves immediately in uniform.
Russian social media coined a term for Mr Putin’s call up – “mogilizatsita”, a mash-up of the Russian word mogila, or grave, and mobilisation.
Unusually long lines to leave Russia were reported overnight and yesterday morning at border crossings, including those with Mongolia and Kazakhstan in the east and Georgia in the south, where hundreds of cars were stuck in a massive traffic jam.
In the Chelyabinsk region, which borders Kazakhstan, dozens of men were seen standing near their cars in the vast steppe just after dawn.
At Moscow airports, border guards reportedly conducted spot checks on young men, quizzing them about their eligibility to be called up.
Putin’s sudden decision to reverse six months of so-called “hidden mobilization” and go public with a nationwide, if so far partial, call-up, took not just ordinary Russians but political insiders by surprise.
“I believe many [in the Russian elite] were taken aback,” said one former senior Kremlin official who worked with Putin until 2016.
“Politically, this is a move that you would not make unless you were desperate. That is a change of message. Everything is not going to plan.”
Indeed, Putin himself in recent speeches in Vladivostok and Samarkand had gone out of his way to be as boring and low-key as possible, talking about the “challenges” to the Russian economy but not explicitly mentioning the war.
Though the protests against mobilization were small, the sudden rise in visibility of the war is likely to send politically dangerous shock waves through Russian society.
Though a large majority of Russians still claim to support Putin, private Kremlin polling leaked in July showed that Russians were evenly split between supporting a continuation of the conflict or making peace. Fifteen per cent of were strongly in favor of the “special military operation”, a similar number strongly against, with a 35pc–35pc divide between those who were mildly for and mildly opposed.
After Putin’s partial mobilisation, one thing is clear: the Kremlin plan to keep the war low-key and fight it using expendable volunteers, colonial troops from ethnic minority provinces and prisoners, has failed.
The author of this dispatch remains anonymous because of reporting restrictions
(© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)
Telegraph Media Group Limited