(CNN) — Russia’s “partial mobilization” for its war in Ukraine is off to a chaotic start amid protests, drafting errors and an exodus of citizens fleeing Russia, as the Kremlin tightens rules so military orders are not evaded.
Some residents of the Sakha Republic in Russia’s Far East were recruited “by mistake” despite not being eligible for mobilization, such as parents of underage children, according to a local leader.
“All those who were mobilized by mistake must be returned. This work has already started,” the head of the republic, Aisen Nikolaev, said in a Telegram post, after a meeting on the presidential decree on partial mobilization.
Two senior lawmakers in Russia acknowledged the problems on Sunday, saying the mobilization must be carried out “in accordance with the law” and deploring reports of “mistaken incidents of citizen mobilization.”
“Such extremes are absolutely unacceptable. And, in my opinion, the harsh reaction we are seeing in society is deserved,” Valentina Matviyenko, chairwoman of the Russian Federation Council, said in a post on Telegram.
In a direct address to Russia’s regional governors, Matviyenko said they were “fully responsible for carrying out mobilization campaigns” in “full and absolute compliance with the announced criteria.”
Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, extended Matviyenko’s calls for due diligence, adding: “If a mistake is made, it must be corrected.”
Meanwhile, videos circulating on Russian social media appear to reveal the tensions, sadness and turmoil that the draft has caused — which began after an announcement on Wednesday — with scenes of families saying emotional goodbyes and others of recruits they argue about being called.
A video from Friday appears to show police and National Guard members getting into fights with a crowd as conscripted men board a bus in the Omsk region of Russian Siberia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday significantly raised the stakes of his assault on Ukraine for ordinary Russians, announcing an immediate “partial mobilization” in a bid to bolster his faltering invasion following Ukraine’s advances.
The mobilization would only affect Russians with previous military experience, according to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who said 300,000 reservists would be called up. However, the decree itself gives much broader terms, sowing fears among Russians of a broader draft in the future.
Activist groups such as the Free Buryatia Foundation have said that ethnic minorities in Russia are disproportionately mobilizing. CNN has geolocated videos of some of these men being mobilized in the Far Eastern regions of Russia.
The resistance will “grow”
The announcement of the mobilization provoked demonstrations against the war throughout the country, which were quickly repressed by the police. At least 1,472 protesters have been detained in dozens of Russian cities as of Saturday, according to the independent protest monitoring group OVD-Info.
It also caused an exodus from Russia as men of military age flee the country rather than risk conscription, with video footage showing long lines of traffic at land border crossings into several neighboring countries and rising airfares and flights sold out in the last few days.
More than 8,500 Russians traveled to neighboring Finland on Saturday by land, according to Matti Pitkäniitty, an officer with the Finnish Border Guard. The figure represented a 62% increase from the previous Saturday, he tweeted. Nearly 4,200 Russians left Finland for Russia, he added.
The Vaalimaa border crossing in southeastern Finland was the busiest point for Russians entering the country, Pitkäniitty said in another tweet on Sunday, adding that the queue at 8 a.m. local time was about 500 meters long.
Ksenia Thorstrom, a Russian municipal deputy from St. Petersburg who left Russia, called the mobilization a “very unpopular decision” in comments to CNN on Saturday.
“I didn’t expect Putin to do this,” Thorstrom said, pointing to protests across the country and adding that “when the first shock wears off, the resistance will grow.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, during his late-night speech on Saturday, called Russia’s partial mobilization a “mobilization to the grave” and urged soldiers to surrender.
Those soldiers who surrender will be “treated in a civilized manner”, Zelensky promised, saying that no one in Russia will know that their “surrender was voluntary” and if they are “afraid to return to Russia and do not want an exchange”, Ukraine “will find a way to guarantee this as well”.
But Russia has moved to discourage the military from dodging conscription or disobeying orders with new laws.
Putin on Saturday signed several amendments to the country’s Penal Code toughening punishments related to military service in times of mobilization, martial law or wartime, which are considered “aggravating factors in criminal sentences,” according to language published on the portal. government law. This follows the introduction of amendments by the State Duma on Tuesday.
Under the new rules, Russians who drop out or fail to report for military service could be subject to up to 10 years in prison.
“The federal law also introduces criminal liability for military personnel for voluntary surrender, as well as criminal liability for looting during martial law, in time of war, or in conditions of armed conflict or combat operations,” a Kremlin statement read. about the amendments.
Putin also signed a law on Saturday that would make it easier for foreigners serving in the Russian military to apply for Russian citizenship, removing the need for such applicants to show a residence permit, as was previously required.
In a separate move, Russia’s Defense Ministry said Saturday it had replaced its deputy defense minister and appointed Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev, an officer Ukraine said led the siege of its eastern port city of Mariupol, to the post. .
Fake referendums underway
The mobilization coincides with the vote in a series of referendums to join Russia, which Moscow-backed leaders have said will be held in four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine from Friday.
Western governments have widely denounced the referendums as illegitimate and a political ploy at a time when Russia has lost significant ground to Ukraine, particularly in the country’s northeast.
They could also pave the way for Russian annexation of the regions, allowing Moscow to frame the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive as an attack on Russia itself, potentially giving it a pretext to step up its assault on Ukraine. Putin assured last week that he would use “all means at our disposal” if he considered that Russia’s “territorial integrity” was in danger.
Overall, turnout on the first day of voting in the referendums in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and in the Zaporizhia and Kherson regions exceeded 15%, said Alexander Kholodov, deputy chairman of Russia’s state watchdog, the Commission. of Security and Interaction that is part of the Public Oversight Commission, according to RIA Novosti.
Ukraine has requested an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council on Russia’s “fake” referendums in the occupied territories of Ukraine, according to Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko.
“Russia must be held accountable for its new attempts to change Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders in violation of the UN Charter,” Nikolenko said in a tweet on Saturday.
CNN’s Jorge Engels and Josh Pennington contributed to this report.