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Putin faces fury in Russia over military mobilization and prisoner swap

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/22/2022 Robyn Dixon, Mary Ilyushina, David Stern
Cars leaving Russia sit in long lines Thursday at a checkpoint at the border with Finland. © Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images Cars leaving Russia sit in long lines Thursday at a checkpoint at the border with Finland.

Russian families bade tearful farewells on Thursday to thousands of sons and husbands abruptly summoned for military duty as part of President Vladimir Putin’s new mobilization, while pro-war Russian nationalists raged over the release of commanders of Ukraine’s controversial Azov Regiment in a highly secretive prisoner exchange.

As women hugged their husbands and young men boarded buses to leave for 15 days of training before potentially being deployed to Russia’s stumbling war effort in Ukraine, there were signs of mounting public anger over the mobilization, which is supposed to call up 300,000 reservists or more.

More than 1,300 people were arrested at anti-mobilization protests in cities and towns across Russia on Wednesday and Thursday, in the largest public protests since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, while Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed reports of booked-out flights and queues to leave Russia as “false information.”

“The information about a certain feverish situation in airports is very much exaggerated,” Peskov insisted during his daily conference call with reporters on Thursday.

Russian police in St. Petersburg on Wednesday detain people protesting a military mobilization calling up 300,000 reservists or more. © Anatoly Maltsev/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock Russian police in St. Petersburg on Wednesday detain people protesting a military mobilization calling up 300,000 reservists or more.

But there were other signs of increased public pushback against Putin and his war, despite the Kremlin’s harsh crackdown on dissent.

In the city of Togliatti, a military commissariat, or local military recruitment and draft office, was set on fire, one of dozens of similar attacks across Russia in recent months, indicating the depth of antipathy to military recruitment efforts.

Russia’s pro-war far right, meanwhile, had a different cause for fury: a prisoner exchange that freed the Azov commanders long branded by Russia as “Nazis” in return for dozens of prisoners held in Ukraine including Viktor Medvedchuk, reputed to be Putin’s closest Ukrainian friend and the leader of Ukraine’s main pro-Kremlin political party, which was banned by Ukrainian authorities in June.

The dual backlash over mobilization and the prisoner exchange showed Putin facing his most acute crisis since the he launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Not only is his country grappling with punishing economic sanctions imposed by the West, but his military has suffered dramatic setbacks, including an embarrassing retreat from the northeastern Kharkiv region.

As mobilization begins in Russia, sold-out flights, protests and arrests

With his options diminishing, Putin has taken increasingly perilous decisions, including the partial mobilization, which risks swinging public sentiment against the war. In a national address Wednesday, Putin also proclaimed his support for steps toward annexing four Ukrainian regions that he does not fully control militarily or politically, which risks fierce fighting and potentially humiliating defeat.

Putin also used his speech to make a thinly veiled threat that Russia would use nuclear weapons. Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, now the deputy head of the country’s Security Council, reiterated that threat on Thursday and upped the ante, specifically warning that Russia would be willing to use “strategic nuclear weapons” to protect any Ukrainian territories absorbed by Moscow.

“Referendums will be held, and the Donbas republics and other territories will be accepted into Russia,” Medvedev posted on Telegram on Thursday, adding that the Russian armed forces would protect those territories.

“Russia announced that not only mobilization capabilities but also any Russian weapons, including strategic nuclear weapons … could be used for such protection,” he wrote.

“With Russia forever” is posted on a billboard in the occupied Luhansk region of Ukraine, where the Kremlin's proxy authorities are planning to stage a referendum on annexation starting on Sept. 27. © AP “With Russia forever” is posted on a billboard in the occupied Luhansk region of Ukraine, where the Kremlin's proxy authorities are planning to stage a referendum on annexation starting on Sept. 27.

In New York, where world leaders are gathered for the annual General Assembly meetings, leaders of Western powers, including President Biden, swiftly denounced Putin’s annexation plans and called on Russia to respect Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, delivering an address to the United Nations by video, insisted on Wednesday night that his country would not surrender territory and that Russia must be punished.

“Ukraine demands punishment for trying to steal our territory,” Zelensky said. “Punishment for the murders of thousands of people. Punishment for tortures and humiliations of women and men.”

The secretive prisoner exchange deal, announced Wednesday night and involving the mediation of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, created the latest pressure on Putin at home.

The details were so toxic that the Kremlin distanced itself from the exchange and Russia’s Ministry of Defense did not outline them, except to confirm 55 Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian soldiers were swapped.

Medvedchuk, who was chief of staff to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma from 2002 to 2005 and has long played a Machiavellian role in Ukrainian politics, reportedly controlled several pro-Kremlin Ukrainian television stations, shut down by Zelensky in February 2021.

Medvedchuk was seen as a potential Kremlin choice as a puppet Ukrainian president before the failure of Moscow’s effort to seize Kyiv and topple Zelensky’s elected government. But Medvedchuk is mainly known as a close friend of Putin. The Russian leader is the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter and has also visited Medvedchuk’s palatial mansion in Crimea.

Asked whether Medvedchuk had been freed, Peskov said: “I can’t comment on the prisoner exchange. I don’t have powers to do so.”

Americans freed in sprawling Russia-Ukraine prisoner exchange

The Russian Defense Ministry statement, issued many hours after Ukrainian officials published the details in the early hours of Thursday, similarly did not mention Medvedchuk.

“As a result of the complex exchange negotiation process, 55 servicemen of the Armed Forces of Russia and the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, who were in mortal danger while in captivity, were returned tonight from Kiev-controlled territory in Ukraine,” the statement said.

Eventually Denis Pushilin, Moscow’s puppet leader in a self-declared separatist area of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, confirmed that he had signed the decree on the exchange for 50 Russian servicemen, five pro-Russian fighters from Ukraine and Medvedchuk.

Sending Russian men to fight in a war to “denazify” Ukraine, at the same time as releasing the Azov commanders and fighters, was difficult for Russia to explain — given that, for years, Kremlin propaganda has portrayed the Azov group as fanatical terrorists and “Nazi” ringleaders who must be destroyed.

The exchange deal took place “in difficult circumstances,” Pushilin told Russian state television. “We gave them 215 people, including nationalistic battalion fighters. They are war criminals. We were perfectly aware of that, but our goal was to bring our guys back as soon as possible,” in comments that only underscored the controversy.

The Russian prisoners were flown to Chkalovsky military air base in the early hours of Thursday and arrived to no fanfare or heroes’ welcome.

Prisoners of war arrive at an unknown location in Russia following a surprise swap with Ukraine. © Russian Defense Ministry/Reuters Prisoners of war arrive at an unknown location in Russia following a surprise swap with Ukraine.

Hard-line nationalists branded the exchange as a betrayal that undercut the reason for the war, on the same day Russia was calling up men to fight.

Among the toughest far-right critics of the Russian military approach — for being too soft — is Igor Girkin, a former Russian FSB agent who commanded Moscow proxy fighters in 2014. He called the exchange of the Azov fighters “treason,” in a post on social media Thursday, blaming “as yet unidentified persons from the top leadership of the Russian Federation.”

The release, on the same day Russians were being called up to fight, was “worse than a crime and worse than a mistake. This is INCREDIBLE STUPIDITY,” he complained. (Girkin is being tried in absentia by a court in The Hague over the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014.)

Putin had been relying on public apathy and lack of interest in the war but now faces rising anger over the mobilization of reservists, even though he stopped short of declaring a full national draft.

Putin drafts up to 300,000 reservists, backs annexation amid war losses

Some protesters who were arrested while demonstrating against mobilization were handed military summonses at police stations late Wednesday in a practice that appeared designed to deter further protests, especially by fighting-age men. Peskov said it was perfectly legal. “It does not contravene the law. Therefore, there is no violation of the law,” he said.

In Chechnya, the regional dictator and close Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov declared that anyone who opposed mobilization was an enemy of the people, after a small protest by around 20 women in the capital of Grozny on Wednesday. Kadyrov threatened to send the husbands of the protesters to fight in Ukraine, local media outlet Caucasian Knot reported.

Questions and fears over the mobilization swirled on Thursday, with doubts about who would escape being called up and who would be forced to fight.

The role of Peskov’s own son Nikolai Peskov underscored Russian suspicions that wealthy and politically connected figures invariably escape military service, with Russian wars fought largely by men from impoverished regions far from Moscow.

Nikolai Peskov was less than enthusiastic about the idea he could be sent to fight when he was phoned Wednesday by Dmitry Nizovtsev, a member of the team of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny and an opposition YouTube channel anchor. Nizovtsev, posing as a military official, demanded that the younger Peskov appear at a local military commissariat the following day at 10 a.m.

“Obviously I won’t come tomorrow at 10 a.m.,” Nikolai Peskov said. “You have to understand that I am Mr. Peskov and it’s not exactly right for me to be there. In short, I will solve this on another level.”

Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, confirmed his son was phoned, but insisted that his comments were not conveyed in full.

Alexei Mishustin, son of Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, was also called and told Nizovtsev he was “not planning to serve in the army” and believed himself to be exempt because he was doing a master’s degree.

Natalia Abbakamova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.

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