Protests across Russia continued over the weekend against President Vladimir Putin’s decision to mobilise the armed forces’ reserves, in the starkest sign of popular discontent since he ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February.
Locals in Dagestan, an impoverished, mostly Muslim region in the mountainous North Caucasus, blocked off a highway and clashed with police as they chanted “No to war!”, according to videos posted on social media by local activists.
The unrest, which comes as public opposition to the war has been outlawed and made punishable with up to 15 years in prison, points to widespread anger at Putin’s decision to call up hundreds of thousands of men into the Russian army, its first military mobilisation since the second world war.
Arson attacks were reported at army recruitment offices in 16 Russian regions in the days following Putin’s announcement on Wednesday — nearly as many incidents as in the war’s first six months.
More than 2,240 people have been arrested for protesting against the mobilisation decree, according to rights monitor OVD-Info.
Thousands of Russians have attempted to flee the country amid unconfirmed reports from independent outlets that the Kremlin is considering closing the borders for draft-eligible men.
Almost all flights to the few remaining destinations available after western countries closed their airspace to Russia were sold out for days.
Long lines of cars formed at Russia’s land borders with Georgia, Finland, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, prompting some people to attempt to cross on bicycles or buy places in the line on social media.
The Kremlin has attempted to tame rising public anger at Putin’s mobilisation decree, which has shattered a carefully maintained equilibrium that allowed most Russians to largely go on with their lives as normal since the start of Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Though Russia’s defence ministry has said it will only draft up to 300,000 men with military experience, local officials have issued summonses to a broad swath of people who do not fall under the terms of Putin’s decree, according to lawyers and activists.
Several people have claimed they were drafted despite promises from defence minister Sergei Shoigu not to call up people with no prior military service or fathers of four or more children, as well as people older than the recruitment age or with chronic illnesses.
Areas with large ethnic minority populations like Dagestan, as well as Yakutia and Buryatia in eastern Siberia, have been particularly hard hit by the round-up.
On Saturday Putin signed a decree exempting students from the draft. On Sunday Dagestan governor Sergei Melikov admitted that “mistakes were made” and said anyone who was drafted despite not meeting the criteria should be sent home.
Russia’s two most senior lawmakers attempted to lay the blame on local officials, who are technically in charge of the hiring efforts and often used as scapegoats to shield Putin from unpopular decisions.
“If mistakes are made, they must be corrected,” wrote Viacheslav Volodin, speaker of the Duma.
Valentina Matvienko, chair of Russia’s senate, said “going overboard like this is absolutely unacceptable” and “is meeting an absolutely justifiably harsh reaction in society.”