More than 1,300 people were arrested in anti-mobilization protests in cities and towns across Russia on Wednesday and Thursday, in the largest public protests since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed reports of flight bookings and waiting lists to Leave Russia as “fake”.
Peskov insisted during his daily phone call with reporters on Thursday that “information about a feverish situation at airports is extremely exaggerated.”
But there were other indications of increased public pressure against Putin and his war, despite the Kremlin’s crackdown on dissent.
In the city of Togliatti, a local military recruitment office was set on fire, one of dozens of similar attacks across Russia in recent months.
Meanwhile, the Russian war hawks on the far right had a different reason for outrage: the prisoner exchange that freed leaders from the controversial Ukrainian Azov Regiment, which Russia has long called “Nazis.” They were exchanged with dozens of prisoners held in Ukraine, including Viktor Medvedchuk, known to be Putin’s closest Ukrainian friend and leader of the country’s main pro-Kremlin political party.
The double reaction to the mobilization and the prisoner exchange showed that Putin is facing his most severe crisis since he launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Not only is his country struggling with economic sanctions imposed by the West, but his army has suffered dramatic setbacks, including an embarrassing withdrawal from the northeastern region of Kharkiv.
With his options dwindling, Putin made increasingly risky decisions that could turn Russian public opinion against war. In his national address Wednesday, he voiced support for steps toward annexing four Ukrainian regions he does not fully control, which threatens fierce fighting and further humiliation.
Putin also used his speech to make a veiled threat that Russia would use nuclear weapons. On Thursday, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who is now the deputy head of the country’s Security Council, made the threat blunt.
“Referendums will be held, the republics of Donbass and other territories of Russia will be accepted,” Medvedev wrote on Telegram, warning that Russia would be ready to use “strategic nuclear weapons” in order to “protect” those territories.
In New York, where world leaders gather for the annual General Assembly, top US and Russian diplomats clashed during a heated meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told the council that every member must “send a clear message that these reckless nuclear threats must stop immediately.” He also condemned the gruesome torture and killing of Ukrainian civilians discovered after Russia’s withdrawal from the cities of Izyum and Bucha.
“Wherever the Russian tide recedes, we discover the horror it has left in its wake,” Blinken said. “We cannot, we will not allow President Putin to get away with it.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied the accusations and accused Ukrainian forces of killing civilians in the eastern Donbass region “with impunity”.
Lavrov also said that countries that send weapons to Ukraine or train their forces to “exhaust and weaken Russia” are direct parties to the war.
“Such a line indicates the direct involvement of Western countries in the Ukrainian conflict, and makes them a party to it,” he said, exiting the hall as soon as he finished his speech.
However, amid escalating rhetoric, the secret prisoner exchange deal announced on Wednesday night, which included mediation by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, showed that some behind-the-scenes diplomacy was still possible.
The agreement was celebrated in Kyiv, where Azov leaders are widely seen as heroes for their role in maintaining the line during Siege of Mariupol. The head of the Ukrainian Military Intelligence Directorate, Kirill Budanov, claimed that some of the liberated prisoners had been tortured. He said, “There are people who were subjected to very cruel torture, and unfortunately the percentage of these people among whom we have returned is very large.”
In Russia, the deal was so toxic that the Kremlin distanced itself from the decision, and the Defense Ministry did not confirm the details.
Medvedchuk, who appears to be the centerpiece of the deal, was Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma’s chief of staff from 2002 to 2005 and has long played a Machiavellian role in Ukrainian politics.
Prior to Moscow’s failure to seize Kyiv and bring down the elected Zelensky government, Medvedchuk was seen as a potential leader of the Kremlin. But he is mainly known as a close friend of Putin. Medvedchuk said the Russian leader is his daughter’s godfather and Putin visited his luxurious palace in Crimea.
Asked if Medvedchuk had been released, Peskov said: “I cannot comment on the prisoner exchange. I do not have powers to do this.” A statement from the Russian Defense Ministry also failed to mention Medvedchuk.
In the end, Denis Pushlin, Moscow’s acting leader in a breakaway region of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, confirmed that he had agreed to an exchange of 50 Russian soldiers and five pro-Russian fighters from Ukraine and Medvedchuk.
It was difficult for Russia to explain sending Russian men to fight in a war to “discredit” Ukraine, at the same time as the release of Azov leaders and fighters – given that for years, Kremlin propaganda portrayed the Azov group as fanatical terrorist and “Nazi” gang leaders who must be destroyed.
Pushlin told Russian state television that the exchange deal took place “in difficult circumstances.” “We gave them 215 people, including the National Brigade fighters. They are war criminals. We were fully aware of this, but our goal was to get our men back as quickly as possible.”
Hard-line nationalists described the exchange as treason that undermined the cause of the war, on the same day that Russia was calling the men to fight.
Among the fiercest critics of Russia’s military approach – for being too soft – is Igor Girkin, the former Russian FSB agent who commanded Moscow’s proxy fighters in 2014. He called the exchange of Azov fighters a “betrayal,” in a social media post Thursday, blaming “people Unidentified persons of the high command of the Russian Federation”.
The release was “worse than a crime and worse than a mistake. That’s unbelievable stupidity,” he complained. (Jerkin is being tried in absentia by a court in The Hague over the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014).
In Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, the regional dictator and close ally of Putin, said in Telegram that “terrorists” from the Azov regiment should not have been handed over.
“It is not right. Our fighters crushed the fascists in Mariupol, drove them to Azovstal, smoked them from the cellars, died, were wounded, shocked. The transfer of even one of these Azov terrorists should have been unacceptable. “
Putin relied on public indifference to continue his war, stopping short of declaring a full national draft. But his mobilization, which is supposed to call up at least 300,000 reservists, will force more Russians to confront the brutal reality of the conflict in Ukraine.
Some protesters who were arrested while demonstrating against mobilization on Wednesday received military summons to police stations, a move aimed at deterring further dissent, especially by men of fighting age. Peskov said it was completely legal. “Does not go against the law. So there is no violation of the law.
And questions about the partial mobilization arose on Thursday, with confusion over who would survive the call-up and who would have to fight.
The role of Peskov’s son, Nikolai Peskov, highlighted Russian suspicions that wealthy and politically connected figures would be exempt from military service, and that the war would be continued largely by men from poorer regions, far from Moscow.
Nikolai Peskov was not enthusiastic about the idea of sending him to fight when he was called on Wednesday by Dmitry Nezovtsev, a member of the team of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny and presenter of an opposition YouTube channel. Nezovtsev, pretending to be a military official, demanded that the younger Peskov appear at the local military commissariat the next day at 10 am.
“Obviously, I will not come tomorrow at ten in the morning,” said Nikolai Peskov. “You have to understand that I am Mr. Peskov and it is not entirely appropriate for me to be there. In short, I will solve this on another level.”
Natalia Abakamova in Riga, Latvia, and David Stern in Kyiv contributed to this report.
The war in Ukraine: what you need to know
Last: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in a speech to the nation on September 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia”. . Follow us Live updates here.
Fighting: The successful Ukrainian counterattack forced a major Russian withdrawal in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled the cities and villages they had occupied from the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Annexation referendums: Russian news agencies reported that the interim referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are scheduled for September 23-27 in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. The Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson will hold another referendum in stages, starting on Friday.
Pictures: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground since the start of the war. Here are some of their most powerful works.