Moscow on Thursday began the mandatory call for troops to try to bolster a stumbling war effort in Ukraine, with authorities saying thousands had signed up even as Russian men fled the country to avoid being forced to fight.
Amateur footage posted on social media since President Vladimir Putin ordered the mobilization of reservists on Wednesday is said to show hundreds of Russian civilians across the country responding to military subpoenas.
The call came as the Moscow-occupied regions of Ukraine are to vote in the coming days on whether or not to join Russia in referendums called an illegal land grab by Kiev and its allies.
Moscow took these steps after Ukrainian forces took most of the northeastern region of Kharkiv, which was seen as a possible turning point in the seven-month-long war that had reached a stalemate.
The Russian military said on Thursday that at least 10,000 people had signed up to fight in 24 hours since the order, but men also rushed to leave Russia before being forced to join.
“I don’t want to go to war,” a man named Dmitri, who flew to Armenia with only one small bag, told AFP. ‘I don’t want to die in this senseless war. This is a fratricidal war.’
– Annexation ‘voice’ –
Men of military age made up the majority of those who arrived at the Armenian airport on the last flight from Moscow, and many were hesitant to speak.
Yerevan has become a major destination for Russians displaced since the war began on February 24, and has faced fierce international opposition seeking to isolate Russia.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanded Thursday that Putin be held accountable as he confronted Russia during a Security Council session where the United Nations identified abuses in Ukraine.
“We can’t — we won’t — let President Putin get away with it,” Blinken told the Security Council in a special session at a meeting of leaders at the United Nations.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – who has refused to meet Blinken in person since the February invasion – lashed out at Western accusations.
“There has been an attempt today to impose on us a very different story about Russian aggression as the origin of this tragedy,” Lavrov told the Security Council.
The confrontation on the diplomatic scene escalated when Kremlin-installed officials in Ukrainian regions controlled by Moscow’s forces pledged on Thursday to continue with annexation polls this week.
Four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine – Donetsk and Lugansk to the east and Kherson and Zaporizhzhya to the south – announced they would hold the vote in five days, starting on Friday.
Vladimir Saldo, the Moscow-installed head of Kherson who fell early in the Russian invasion, said the referendum would continue in his region regardless of the criticism.
“The date has been set. We have the green light. The vote starts tomorrow and nothing can prevent this,” he told Russian state media.
“People have been waiting and they are demanding that this vote be held quickly,” he added.
Western leaders meeting in New York this week unanimously condemned the ballots.
During his speech to the United Nations, US President Joe Biden accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of “blatantly” violating the UN Charter with a war that aimed to “destroy Ukraine’s right to exist as a state”.
– ‘Everyone would like to leave’ –
Integrating the war-torn regions into Russia would greatly escalate the conflict, as Moscow could then say it was defending its own territory against Ukrainian forces.
After the votes were announced by his proxy officials in Ukraine, Putin announced that Russia would call up some 300,000 reservists to bolster the war effort and warned that Moscow would use “all means” to protect its territory.
Former Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev said in a social media statement that those assets included “strategic nuclear weapons.” He predicted that the voting regions “will integrate into Russia”.
For most observers, the results of the simultaneous votes are already a foregone conclusion and have been rushed as Ukrainian forces made huge gains in a counter-offensive to retake the east.
The referenda are reminiscent of a similar vote in 2014 in which the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine was annexed by Russia. Western capitals said the vote was fraudulent 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 the first days would be door-to-door voting. But that is only possible on the last day, Tuesday, in the polling stations.
Putin’s move this week to call up reservists for Ukraine sparked small protests across Russia, with more than 1,300 people detained.
Flights from Russia to neighboring countries, mainly former Soviet republics that allow Russians visa-free entry, are almost fully booked and prices have skyrocketed, signaling an exodus of Russians seeking to avoid war.
Sergei, 44, looked lost and exhausted in the arrivals hall of the airport in Armenia’s capital, and said he had fled Russia to avoid being summoned.
“The situation in Russia would make everyone want to leave,” he told AFP on condition of anonymity.
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