Kremlin attempts to calm Russian fury over chaotic mobilisation

<span>Photograph: AP</span>
Photograph: AP

It took Alina three goes at the local conscription centre to get her husband out of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

She knew the local officials managing the mobilisation in her town south of Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, she said. So when her husband, who has health problems because of his weight and served in the army more than 15 years ago, was called up, she began hassling them to review his case.

“I told them: ‘What war?’ Have they gone crazy? And the top [official] just gave me this sad look,” she said.

But as protests broke out last week in Dagestan and anger grew over the conscription, she said, something changed. Suddenly, they told her that her husband’s call-up was a mistake.

“They told me we were lucky,” she said, “but couldn’t help us if there’s another round [of mobilisation].”

Russia’s first draft since the second world war has caused unparalleled chaos and anger across the country. Hundreds of thousands of men have left their homes: some taken to fight in Ukraine, still more heading for the borders to dodge the draft. A popular gag now shows internet memes with the men airbrushed out. “Meanwhile in Moscow,” goes the joke.

Now, in order to save Vladimir Putin’s conscription, an army of Russian propagandists and local technocrats are pointedly criticising the process, directing attention towards a few “bad apples” in Russia’s draft centres rather than military failures and the poor decisions made by Putin that have led the war into its eighth month.

Russians cross the border into Georgia to escape military service in Ukraine
Russians cross the border into Georgia to escape military service in Ukraine.
Photograph: Daro Sulakauri/Getty Images

Every day, Margarita Simonyan, the head of the media company RT and a noted pro-war hawk, posts the stories of Russians who she says were illegally issued draft notices. The naming and shaming is meant to put pressure on draft committees, she says. But it also bolsters her political credentials as a person who can lobby the government for reprieves from the draft.

“Do you really think that if [Putin] didn’t even want to send conscripts to Ukraine, he meant to send hairdressers, female cardiologists, people with bad backs, the teacher of the year from Pskov, a musician in an orchestra or a theatre director?” she said on state television last week.

The criticism of draft boards diverts pressure from Putin, whom Simonyan often just calls “the boss”.

“They’re all trying to act in the interests of Putin, in one way or another,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the R.Politik analysis firm. “It’s not that any of them truly regret what has happened or believe the Putin approach to be wrong … they’re trying to smooth over the excesses of the system. To protect Putin.”

Stanovaya added that the kneejerk reaction reminded her of Russia’s pandemic response: “The government is not fully developed. It can’t solve problems that affect big social circles.”

Mobilisation appears more unpopular than the war itself. To get ahead of the anger, even Putin has criticised the process. “If a mistake is made, I repeat, it must be corrected,” he said during a teleconference with his security council last week. “Those who were called up without proper reason should be returned home.”

As the draft has become more and more controversial, a series of celebrities and journalists sought to calm fears in Moscow by announcing that it was now being overseen by Sergei Sobyanin, the city’s mayor, who fetishised data-driven solutions to the city’s problems.

“The draft in Moscow has been taken under additional control,” wrote Ksenia Sobchak, a Russian public figure who is the daughter of Putin’s former mentor. “Well, let’s be fair: Sobyanin is doing it.”

For years now, Russia’s government has sought to replace free and fair elections with technocratic solutions to the problems of daily life. Trust in the managers we install, goes the pitch, and we promise they will listen to your concerns. That thinking has now passed over to Putin’s mobilisation. While the draft itself is above reproach, they are arguing heatedly over how it is being mismanaged.

There is a sense that Russia’s politicians and pundits are auditioning for higher roles in government on a topic that has touched most Russian households to the core. “You can see there are new power players emerging trying to carve out political influence for themselves in all this chaos,” said Alexey Kovalev, head of the investigative desk at Meduza, an independent Russian-language news website based in Riga, Latvia.

They include the Wagner Group mercenary army founder Yevgeny Prigozhin and Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, said Kovalev. “But there’s also Sobyanin ... and he’s trying to portray himself as this benevolent technocratic ruler who is going to show everyone how this can be optimised.”

An image of Russian president Vladimir Putin appears on a screen in Moscow’s Red Square
An image of Russian president Vladimir Putin appears on a screen in Moscow’s Red Square as he addresses a rally and a concert marking the annexation of four regions in Ukraine. Photograph: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

At the Sakharovo migration centre in Moscow’s suburbs, Sobyanin has advertised a “one-stop shop” for migrants who may want to join the war effort while also applying for their work or citizenship documents. (Activists complained last week that migrants were being persuaded with flyers in languages such as Tajik to sign up for year-long contracts to the armed forces in order to get their citizenship.)

A temporary mobilisation point at the Museum of Moscow is all clean, minimalist aesthetics and crisp sans serif typefaces. It exudes the cool, airspace aesthetic that has become ubiquitous with Sobyanin’s modern Moscow. While men wait inside, a TV plays old black-and-white Soviet war movies. It feels like one of the pop-up vaccination centres or local registration offices, known as My Documents centres, that Sobyanin has built to simplify doing paperwork in the capital.

The team at the Veter Fall Fest, a pop-up market with local brands, did not even notice that a draft centre had been constructed at the museum, where their festival was going to take place, until it was too late. “We decided not to hide this information and not to risk the safety of not only the participants of our festival, but of our thousands of readers,” the Veter magazine said in a statement cancelling the event. Anti-mobilisation activists have warned Russians to stay away from draft centres to avoid being coerced into enlisting.In Dagestan, officials have taken a more traditional route, berating their subordinates for their enthusiastic efforts to recruit soldiers. “Are you guys fucking morons?” shouted the head of the republic, Sergei Melikov, while playing a video from social media showing police officers in the city of Derbent telling all male residents to leave their homes and report to the local draft centre.

For Alina, persistence paid off. But she said she did not trust local officials to fix the future rounds of mobilisation, if they take place. “Everyone fights on their own in this,” she said. “Nobody is coming to help you.”