Russian social media quickly coined the term “mogilizatsita” for Putin’s call-up, a mash-up of the Russian word mogila, or grave, and mobilisation.
Unusually long lines to leave the country were reported overnight on Wednesday and Thursday morning at once-sleepy border crossings including those with Mongolia and Kazakhstan in the east and Georgia in the south, where hundreds of cars were pictured stuck in a night-time massive traffic jam.
In the Chelyabinsk region that borders Kazakhstan, dozens of men were seen standing near their cars in the vast steppe just after dawn.
At Moscow airports, border guards reportedly conducted spot checks on young men, quizzing them about their eligibility to be called up.
Putin’s sudden decision to reverse six months of so-called “hidden mobilisation” and go public with a nationwide, if so far partial, call-up took not just ordinary Russians but political insiders by surprise. “I believe many people [in the Russian elite] were taken aback,” said one former senior Kremlin official who worked closely with Putin until 2016.
“Politically, this is a move that you would not make unless you were desperate – that is a change of message. Everything is not going to plan.”
Putin was low-key in Vladivostok
Indeed Putin himself in recent speeches in Vladivostok and Samarkand had gone out of his way to be as boring and low-key as possible, talking about the “challenges” to the Russian economy but not explicitly mentioning the war at all.
Though the protests against mobilisation were small, the sudden rise in visibility of the war is likely to send politically dangerous shock waves through Russian society. Though a large majority of Russians still claim to support Putin, private Kremlin polling leaked in July showed that Russians were evenly split between supporting a continuation of the conflict or making peace.
Some 15 per cent of respondents were strongly in favour of what the Kremlin calls the “special military operation”, a similar number strongly against, with a 35-35 per cent divide between those who were mildly for and mldly opposed.
After Putin’s partial mobilisation, one thing is clear: the Kremlin plan to keep the war low key and fight it using expendable volunteers, colonial troops from ethnic minority provinces such as Buryatia and Chechnya and prisoners has failed.
With hundreds of thousands of Russians facing the prospect of being sent to war against their will under threat of jail, Putin’s war – and its failures – has suddenly become very much no longer invisible.
The author of this dispatch remains anonymous due to reporting restrictions