Putin’s Draft Draws Resistance in Russia’s Far-Flung Regions

President Vladimir V. Putin’s surprise draft to reinforce his invasion of Ukraine ran into growing resistance across Russia on Friday as villagers, activists and even some elected officials asked why the conscription drive appeared to be hitting minority groups and rural areas harder than the big cities.

Some of the greatest anguish played out hundreds or thousands of miles away from the front line, in the Caucasus Mountains and the northeastern region of Yakutia, a sparsely populated expanse that straddles the Arctic Circle. Community leaders described remote villages where much of the working-age male population received conscription notices in recent days, leaving families that subsist off the land without men around to work ahead of the long winter.

“We have reindeer herders, hunters, fishermen — we have so few of them anyway,” Vyacheslav Shadrin, the chairman of the council of elders for a small Indigenous group known as the Yukaghirs, said in a phone interview. “But they are the ones being drafted most of all.”

Mr. Putin announced the call-up on Wednesday, describing it as a “partial mobilization” necessary to counter Ukraine and its Western backers, who he said were seeking Russia’s destruction. It was a move he had long delayed making, even as supporters of the war clamored for a draft in order to allow Russia to intensify its assault.

Russia would mobilize about 300,000 civilians, defense officials said, focusing on men with military experience and special skills, though some Russian media that now operate outside the country reported that the number could be much higher.

But by Friday, even some of the hawkish commentators who had been urging a draft were criticizing the sweeping and uneven way it appeared to be rolling out. A popular pro-war blog on Telegram, Rybar, described receiving “huge numbers of stories” of people with health problems or without combat experience getting draft notices, even as some volunteers were being turned away.

Rather than helping Russia’s war effort, hawks warned, the chaotic conscription could end up harming it. And some said the military officials carrying out the order cared more about formally fulfilling orders than winning the war.

“If we’re doing a mobilization, then it should be the foundation of strengthening the army,” Andrei Medvedev, a Moscow lawmaker and state television host, wrote on Telegram. “And not the cause of upheaval.”

In Yakutia, an association representing the region’s main ethnic group, the Sakha, warned the draft could have dire consequences there. The group circulated a letter to Mr. Putin saying that the mobilization could lead to a “denuding of the male component of the already sparsely populated northern districts of Yakutia.”

And even a member of Russian Parliament who represents the region, Sardana V. Avksentieva, wrote on social media on Thursday that she had heard of a 300-person village in which 47 men were called up.

“What is the logic of these numbers?” she asked, asserting that people in rural regions were being drafted at a higher rate than in the cities. “What proportionality are we talking about?”

Russian soldiers saluting an officer while guarding a rally in support of the Donbas region joining Russia on Friday in St. Petersburg.Credit…Anatoly Maltsev/EPA, via Shutterstock

There were signs of turmoil as soon as Mr. Putin announced the draft, despite his characterization of it as only “partial.” It appeared that all swaths of society were affected to some degree — shattering the feeling of normalcy that the Kremlin had sought to maintain inside Russia for the first seven months of the war. A new wave of Russians packed flights, cars and buses out of the country. And Russian businesses, including airlines, tech companies and agricultural firms, were concerned about how the call-up could affect them, the Kommersant newspaper reported.

A photo released by Russian state media shows President Vladimir V. Putin on Friday.Credit…Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik

Amid those questions, the Defense Ministry said that Russian men with certain white-collar jobs in banking, I.T. and telecommunications would not be called on join the war effort. In Parliament, lawmakers promised to give draftees a break from loan payments and to require employers to keep their jobs.

For all the improvisation, it appeared that the Kremlin was aware of the political risks of ordering civilians into service. Analysts say that Mr. Putin had put off declaring a draft, despite his military’s widespread manpower shortages and heavy losses, fearing a domestic backlash.

Far-flung regions, minority groups and rural areas appeared to be the hardest hit, at least at the outset. Kirill Shamiev, who studies Russian civil-military relations at the Central European University in Vienna, said that was because remote areas and marginalized groups were seen as less likely to protest.

“The Kremlin is doing what it has been doing for forever,” he said. “Its first filter is preserving the power of Vladimir Putin in Russia. That’s why the number of people called up for service is significantly higher in the regions, in the rural areas, small towns.”

Still, he said, the Kremlin’s approach of “obey or you’ll be repressed,” could backfire when conscripts return from the front lines to tell the truth about the war to their communities.

“The risks for Vladimir Putin personally have risen significantly,” he said, because the military and the defense sector “became the core elements of the Kremlin’s legitimacy.”

Interviews with people in three regions in Russia’s predominantly Muslim Caucasus Mountains suggested widespread fear of mobilization. In Chechnya, a small-business owner described seeing few men on the streets of Grozny, the capital, and said a mosque that was typically overflowing on Fridays was one-third empty.

In Kabardino-Balkaria, a local activist reported that one village of 2,500 had seen 38 people drafted, and that there was talk of young men injuring themselves to avoid conscription. But few people were protesting, he said, because civic life had been virtually liquidated.

And in Ingushetia, a Russian Army officer said he was trying to avoid going to Ukraine.

“People are close to panic,” he said. “The police are stopping cars and handing over draft notices.”

Police arresting a protester in Moscow after conscription was announced on Wednesday.Credit…Alexander Nemenov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. Rooslan Totrov, a journalist from the Caucasus region of North Ossetia who is now based in Dubai, said that the draft had become a “reality check” for people who supported the war from afar.

“As soon as this suddenly starts affecting your relatives, loved ones and acquaintances, there’s a natural, human, defensive reaction,” he said. “The first question that many, many, many people have started to ask is: Why?”

In Yakutia’s isolated settlements, which often lack high-speed internet, Russian state television remains the most important source of news for many. Mr. Shadrin, the Yukaghir community leader, described the members of his Indigenous group — scattered in small villages across the vast region — as overwhelmingly supportive of the Kremlin. But after fielding panicked phone calls from mothers this week, he suggested that might change.

Support for Mr. Putin “was off the charts” in rural Yakutia, Mr. Shadrin said. “Now I think a sobering-up is starting to happen.”

At one reindeer herding enterprise, he said, four of the 20 herders had already been drafted. Among the Yukaghirs, he said, he already knew of seven men who had been called up, and he expected the number to rise as hunters and herders return to their villages and receive summonses. The total population of the Yukaghirs numbers about 1,600, he said, including just 400 men between 18 and 45.

Several community organizations published open letters requesting that the draft be suspended for the region’s ethnic minorities, asserting that even in World War II, the Soviet Union’s Arctic Indigenous peoples were not mobilized because there were so few of them.

“Our villages are small and every man is worth his weight in gold,” Ivan Shamayev, the chairman of the Sakha Congress and the signatory of one letter, said in a phone interview. “The villages will just find it hard to survive without men, and that is why they need to figure this out.”

Men reporting for the draft outside an army depot in Moscow on Friday.Credit…Moscow News Agency

Perhaps most shocking to the region’s residents, several said in an interviews, was that the draft came just as households scrambled to prepare for winter. Like much of Siberia, Yakutia is being reshaped dramatically by climate change, with fast-rising temperatures thawing the permafrost and contributing to devastating floods.

Alarmed messages about the mobilization circulated on WhatsApp. One local activist forwarded several of the pleas for help she had received. One was from a woman in the Verkhoyansk District, a Siberian area where temperatures can drop to minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Her son had not finished fixing the floors of her home, she wrote, that had to be removed after a summer flood.

“He has two small kids, the wife is pregnant, I just had an operation,” the woman wrote. “I have no idea how we’ll make it through the winter.”

The activist, who asked that her name be withheld for her security, said that Yakutians had been following the war on television and knew Mr. Putin’s argument that it was a war to protect their country. But until now, it had all been very abstract.

“On television they say that this is about defending the Fatherland,” she said. “But the threat is now not so much to the Fatherland but to our own lives.”

Alina Lobzina, Ivan Nechepurenko and Valerie Hopkins contributed reporting.

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