‘I am scared’: Russians panic as Putin sends reserves to the Ukrainian border
As world leaders line up to condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine before the United Nations General Assembly in New York, it’s hard not to wonder if Putin timed his headline-grabbing speech to steal their thunder.
Announcing the mobilization of Russian reserves, Putin said that his army was confronting “the entire military machine of the collective West” in Ukraine and needed to protect the “territorial integrity and sovereignty of Russia” from the “aggressive politics of Western elites who are doing all they can to impose their will and their pseudo-values.”
It was the West, he said, that was threatening Russia with nuclear weapons. Not the other way around.
Putin’s speech is chilling not only because of the Damoclean nuclear threat he continues to hang over us but because it is all based entirely on a bewildering, alternative narrative, stitched together from years of conspiracy theories and Kremlin-manufactured paranoia.
Now Putin is sending 300,000 more men to war to protect the parallel reality his propaganda machine has created.
And Russians are responding with panic.
Part of the reason Putin has been embarrassed on the battlefield is the lack of both morale and the numbers necessary to patrol thousands of kilometers of supposedly “liberated” territory in Ukraine. Sending tens of thousands of men to the front with little equipment and little training to face exhausted but motivated and clearly superior Ukrainian forces kitted out with Western equipment means that these Russian reserve troops are quite literally cannon fodder.
As Putin spoke, searches for “how do I leave Russia” and “how do I break a leg” (to avoid the draft) topped Google search trends. Tickets to all destinations that Russians can get to without a visa are booked out. Airfare prices surged. Traffic jams on the border with Finland stretched for nearly 35 kilometers.
“I am scared,” a Saint Petersburg resident told me over Signal. “My son has military training and he will now be drafted.” Rumors are spreading that military commissars will be manning checkpoints to take men eligible for the draft into custody.
“I can’t go out into the streets. I am afraid I will be forced to go and fight,” a young man from the city of Vladimir, about 200 kilometers east of Moscow, told my colleague.
Over a thousand people have been arrested in anti-mobilization protests in 38 Russian cities. But will enough Russians rally to force Putin to rethink a war that he began but seems unable to finish?
And if thousands of Russian men are desperate to escape conscription, plenty of others are jubilant about Putin’s expansion of the war effort. Stories filled popular, pro-war Telegram channels of men rushing to sign up or sharing their disappointment at not being qualified for the draft.
“Damn, I can’t join for health reasons,” reads a typical post. “They wouldn’t accept a bribe to let me join. But then said I could come as a driver or a cook. So I’ll be able to serve the motherland. For the motherland! For Putin! All the way to Kyiv!”
I asked sociologist Natalia Savelyeva what we should make of the mixed Russian response to Putin’s partial mobilization. The answer: it’s complicated. For months now, we’ve heard that nearly 70 percent of the population supported Putin’s war but Savelyva’s research reveals a much more nuanced picture.
Together with her colleagues at the Public Sociology Laboratory, an independent research initiative, Savelyeva interviewed 200 Russians, dividing respondents into “opponents” “supporters” and the “doubters.”
It is the largest group, the doubters, Savelyeva believes, who are likely to be swayed by the mobilization. “This could become a turning point, the point at which the regime will start cracking,” she says.
Savelyeva predicts we will see small-scale protests and large-scale “hidden resistance” in Russia.
Globally, will this also be the moment some Putin allies change their tune? One particularly prominent example might be the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
VIEW FROM DELHI: MODI’S ADVICE TO PUTIN IS IGNORED
By Shougat Dasgupta
The gathering a little over a week ago of a set of world leaders in Samarkand, in Uzbekistan, one of the world’s most evocative cities, was meant to be a showcase for a non-NATO, non-Western sphere of global influence. Here was an alternative world order.
Except both China and Russia, “eternal friends” and the leaders of this Eurasian axis, seemed bereft of ideas and inspiration.
Instead it was India’s prime minister Narendra Modi who stole the show, playing the wise family counselor to perfection. It was a diplomatic coup. In newspapers such as the Washington Post, Modi’s standard remarks on the war in Ukraine — consistent with India’s position since the beginning (war bad, diplomacy good, cheap Russian oil best) — were a “stunning public rebuke” of Vladimir Putin.
Certainly, Modi will have enjoyed the headlines. While Xi Jinping, droned on about the provocations of Western countries seeking to spark “color revolutions,” a startlingly unoriginal conspiracy theory, Modi was able to please the West, without annoying Russia, and maintain India’s carefully considered non-alignment.
Non-alignment was the much-cherished principle of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and a hate figure for the Hindu right. Nehru couched his realism in lofty, idealistic language, though many non-aligned positions were more expedient than moral.
Modi’s version is expressed as realpolitik rather than idealism. Yet, he appears to have succeeded in making India’s position on the war in Ukraine be understood as both necessary and principled.
“Democracy, diplomacy, dialogue,” Modi declared with an alliterative flourish and the West applauded as if acknowledging Modi as the “vishwa guru,” the world’s teacher.
But Putin — who appeared to be willingly playing the stooge to Modi’s grandstanding as if to show before the world how badly wrong the war with Ukraine was going — turned the tables on Modi by escalating the war effort, preparing to send hundreds of thousands of Russian reservists to the frontline. Modi’s avuncular lecture had clearly fallen on deaf ears.
Can Modi now continue to offer homilies about non-alignment when Putin has upped the ante? With warm praise for Modi’s words coming from the United States and France, the Indian prime minister will feel he has bought himself enough goodwill to continue to avoid picking a side.
As for the beleaguered opposition in India, they can only look on in wonder as Modi’s statesmanlike moment in the international spotlight garners fawning praise when he should instead have been answering questions about the large stretches of territory India is reported to have ceded along the Himalayan border with China.
And that’s it for this week. Actually, almost. Before you go, check out this amazing graphic of planes departing from Russian airspace and here’s a tragicomic video of a Russian man being dragged away by police for being at the scene of an anti-mobilization rally despite his pro-war views.