SOME speak of an exodus.

On the frontiers with Kazakhstan, Georgia, Mongolia and Finland, the border traffic grows. The price of air tickets meanwhile has skyrocketed with some one-way fares soaring above £4000 to the nearest foreign locations. Those flights that take passengers to countries that don’t require visas to enter including Turkey, Azerbaijan, Serbia and Armenia are especially sought-after but mostly sold out.

Many Russians, it seems, are not hanging around following president Vladimir Putin’s order for a “partial” military mobilisation that could put up to 300,000 men on the battlefield, to replenish 70,000-80,000 casualties that Western officials say Russia has suffered since its invasion of Ukraine in February.

Already the Kremlin’s order is showing signs of impacting Russian society in a way not seen in generations, putting the country on a war footing, even as Putin’s regime resists uttering the word “war”, and still insists on calling it a “special military operation”.

The mobilisation, the first since the Second World War, was “necessary and urgent”, Putin said in a nationally televised speech last Wednesday, because the West had “crossed all lines” by providing weapons to Ukraine. It was needed to “protect our motherland, its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to ensure the safety of our people and people in the liberated territories” of Ukraine, Putin claimed.

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But judging by the scope of the mobilisation effort, reflected anecdotally in news reports and social media coverage coming out of Russia, the 300,000 figure has led many analysts to the conclusion that the target figure is much larger with some envisioning up to one million people being drafted.

Citing an unnamed figure in the Russian presidential administration, Novaya Gazeta – one of Russia’s last independent news outlets that now operates in exile outside the country – reported last Thursday that a classified decree listed on Putin’s mobilisation order anticipated one million people being brought into the military. Russian officials denied the report.

Though the Kremlin insists the mobilisation is only “partial” and limited to those who have served in the armed forces before and have combat experience, many analysts are not convinced, insisting that the decree remains deliberately vague, enabling the authorities to ramp up the recruitment should they choose.

“Mobilisation is called ‘partial’, but no parameters of this partiality, neither geographical, nor in terms of criteria, are specified,” Ekaterina Schulmann, a Russian political scientist, wrote on her social media page. “According to this text, anyone can be drafted, except for workers of the military-industrial complex.”

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On Friday, Russia’s defence ministry announced some employees working in critically important industries would be excluded from the draft in a bid to “ensure the work of specific high-tech industries, as well as Russia’s financial system”.

The exceptions would apply to some IT workers, telecommunications workers, finance professionals, as well as some employees at “systemically important” mass media outlets and interdependent suppliers, including registered media and broadcasters.

Russia classifies major employers and core companies in set industries as “systemically important” if they meet certain thresholds in terms of headcount, revenue or annual tax payments.

But Putin’s decision to bolster Russia’s army has brought the war close to home for many Russians who had managed to largely carry on living as before for the first seven months of the conflict in Ukraine.

Some Russia watchers say it has shattered an unspoken social contract in which the public tacitly supported the invasion as long as the fighting stayed far away from daily life.

Alex Titov, a Russia analyst at Queen’s University Belfast, speaking to news outlet VOA, said the policy represents a watershed moment in the invasion of Ukraine. “The initial plan to conduct a swift military operation with only the professional army involved has failed, and now they have to turn to something very unpopular and something they tried to avoid and tried to delay, the official mobilisation of the civilian population. There is no way of knowing how many actually will be called up over what period. There’s no clear end to it either,” said Titov.

That lack of clarity has already created a deepening anxiety and, in some cases, widespread panic among Russia’s population resulting in an outflux of people to places like Yerevan and Tbilisi, where Russian is widely understood and short-term visas are not required.

The mobilisation order has also sparked protests across the country. Last Thursday as news of the order broke, Russia’s jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny called for mass protests against the war. Since then, human rights groups claim that about 1400 demonstrators have been arrested, with reports that some of those detained are being handed mobilisation papers while in custody.

Many now face possible legal troubles after authorities warned protesters risked violating new laws that criminalise “denigrating” Russia’s armed forces with lengthy prison terms.

The Kremlin has tasked regional governors with overseeing the draft and stiffened penalties for refusal of service or desertion to 10 years in prison.

In the few days since the mobilisation order was announced, thousands of men have been chased down by recruiters and swiftly loaded on to buses and planes to be sent off for military training and, presumably, deployment to the front lines.

On social media, videos have surfaced showing families and friends seeing off recruits to fight. In one video from Dagestan, in Russia’s south, an argument can be seen taking place outside a recruiting station.

“My son has been fighting there since February,” shouts a woman who compares the current conflict to the Soviet Union’s war with Nazi Germany in the Second World War.

“That was a war ... but this is just politics,” a man shouts back at her.

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Amid the uncertainty of the draft, the picture that is emerging is of a population fearful of being used as cannon fodder. According to one report from the news outlet Radio Free Europe (RFE/RL), in the central Russian region of Chuvashia, encrypted chat rooms – using applications like WhatsApp, Viber or Telegram – have sprung up as people anxiously discuss what mobilisation means and how to avoid it.

“The whole situation seems strange to me. Russia has a lot of people in reserve. Where do they need so many people now? What will they all do there in Ukraine?” commented one 33-year-old mother of two who gave only her first name, Olga.

She said her husband is a corporal in the military reserves, so he qualifies under the mobilisation order.

“In my circles, friends and just acquaintances, they’re discussing only one topic: where to hide my husband?” she told RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service. “What else are you supposed to do? Either hide, and then be afraid not to be imprisoned, or you go and fight.”

In some parts of Russia, particularly in its more remote and poorer regions, military authorities have started conscripting men of fighting age regardless of their background, according to activists and direct witnesses.

Activists are also concerned that Russia’s ethnic minorities are being sent to fight and die in Ukraine in disproportionate numbers. According to the country’s 2010 census, Russia is home to more than 160 different ethnic groups, which make up 20% of the country’s population as of 2002.

Rights activists say they believe that Russian military recruiters in the current mobilisation are focusing their efforts in rural and remote areas, rather than big cities like Moscow or St Petersburg. In these more remote regions, a lack of media outlets and protest activity makes it easier for them to enforce recruitment orders and to appease the regional leaders seeking to curry favour with the Kremlin. Asian ethnic populations of places like Siberia and the Russian Far East are also less likely to have personal and family connections to Ukraine.

“These people are less defended,” said Vasily Matenov, founder of Asians of Russia, which was launched on social media four years ago to gather Russians of Asian heritage.

“If they were to start rounding up Muscovites, then everyone would hear about it,” Matenov was quoted by Foreign Policy magazine as saying on Friday.

In a video address also on Friday, former Mongolian president Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj noted that since the beginning of the war against Ukraine, “ethnic minorities who live in Russia suffered the most”.

“The Buryat Mongols, Tuva Mongols and Kalmyk Mongols have suffered a lot. They have been used as nothing more than cannon fodder,” said Elbegdorj, adding this was the reason why Mongolia has been ready and willing to accept people fleeing Putin’s mobilisation.

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Other nations too bordering Russia including Kazakhstan, Georgia and Finland, have found themselves bolt holes to which many Russians have fled to avoid the draft.

Finland said on Thursday it was considering barring most Russians from entering the country as traffic across the border from its eastern neighbour “intensified” following Putin’s order. Finnish land border crossings have remained among the few entry points into Europe for Russians after a string of Western countries shut both physical frontiers and their air space to Russian planes in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

At the Vaalimaa border crossing, roughly three hours’ drive from Russia’s second-largest city St Petersburg, three lanes of cars each stretched for 300-400 yards. The crossing is one of nine on Finland’s 800-mile border with Russia, the longest in the European Union.

“Traffic at the Finnish-Russian border intensified during the night,” the border guard’s head of international affairs, Matti Pitkaniitty, said in a tweet. MEANWHILE, Finland’s prime minister Sanna Marin said on Thursday the government was assessing risks posed by individuals travelling through Finland and was considering ways to sharply reduce Russian transit.

“The government’s will is very clear, we believe Russian tourism [to Finland] must be stopped, as well as transit through Finland,” Marin told journalists.

“I believe the situation needs to be reassessed after yesterday’s news,” she added, referring to Putin’s partial mobilisation order.

But while some Russians are on the move to avoid mobilisation, others already drafted are already on route for training and deployment in Ukraine.

For the moment, military analysts say it remains far from certain that Russia’s military setbacks can be reversed simply by sending hundreds of thousands of new fighters to the front. Russia is also running short of weapons and other supplies and has lost several commanders in the nearly seven-month-long war.

Meanwhile, on the ground in Ukraine, Russian troops already deployed there were this weekend going door-to-door in occupied parts of the country to collect votes for “referendums” on joining Russia.

“You have to answer verbally and the soldier marks the answer on the sheet and keeps it,” one woman in Enerhodar told the BBC. In southern Kherson, Russian guardsmen stood with a ballot box in the middle of the city to collect people’s votes.

The vote is aimed at annexing four occupied regions of Ukraine – Luhansk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk – and has drawn condemnation from Kyiv and Western nations who dismissed the votes as a sham and pledged not to recognise their results.

Ukrainian officials said people were banned from leaving some occupied areas until the four-day vote was over, armed groups were going into homes and employees were threatened with the sack if they did not participate.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a nightly address that the votes would be “unequivocally condemned” by the world, along with the mobilisation Russia began last week, including in Crimea and other areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia.

The National: In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers his speech addressing the nation in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. Russian troops bore down on Ukraine's capital Friday, with

“These are not just crimes against international law and Ukrainian law, these are crimes against specific people, against a nation,” Zelenskyy said.  

Between its mobilisation order and annexation moves in Ukraine, Russia has set the scene for another dangerous moment in this conflict as the region heads into what will be a bloody and bitter winter.