(KYIV Reuters) – Some draft-age Russians headed abroad on Thursday to escape their country’s biggest conscription drive since World War Two. At the same time, explosions shook southeastern Ukraine on the eve of referendums planned there by pro-Moscow separatists.
President Vladimir Putin’s new mobilization campaign escalates a war that has already killed thousands, displaced millions, pulverized cities, damaged the global economy, and revived Cold War confrontation.
Though polls have suggested widespread domestic backing for Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, mass conscription may be a domestically risky move after past Kremlin promises it would not happen and a string of battlefield failures in Ukraine.
Anti-war protests in 38 Russian cities saw more than 1,300 people arrested on Wednesday, a monitoring group said, with more planned for the weekend. Independent news outlets said that some detainees had been ordered to report to enlistment offices on Thursday, the first full day of conscription.
Putin’s defense minister has said the call-up is intended to enlist about 300,000 men.
Prices for air tickets out of Moscow soared above $5,000 for one-way flights to the nearest foreign locations, with most sold out in coming days. Traffic also surged at border crossings with Finland and Georgia.
Russia scoffed at reports of a mass exodus as exaggerated. National airline Aeroflot said it would refund people unable to fly as planned because they had received a call-up.
Addressing world leaders at the annual U.N. General Assembly in New York, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged the United Nations to create a special tribunal and strip Moscow of its Security Council veto power.
“A crime has been committed against Ukraine, and we demand just punishment,” Zelenskiy, dressed in his trademark green military T-shirt, said by video on Wednesday.
The 15-member Security Council meets again over Ukraine later on Thursday. It has been unable to take significant action on Ukraine because Russia is a permanent veto-wielding member, along with the United States, France, Britain, and China.
On the ground, Russia’s military fired nine missiles on the city of Zaporizhzhia, hitting a hotel and a power station, said regional governor Oleksandr Starukh. At least one person died with others trapped under rubble, he said. Zaporizhzhia is about 50 km (31 miles) from the nuclear plant of the same name.
Moscow does not fully control any of the four regions it seeks to annex, with only around 60% of Donetsk and 66% of Zaporizhzhia regions held by its forces.
Ukraine extended its hold on recaptured northeastern territory earlier this week as troops marched farther into areas abandoned by Russia, paving the way for a potential assault on occupation forces in the Donbas industrial heartland.
Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy chairman of the national security council, said Moscow reserved the right to use strategic nuclear weapons if necessary to protect itself and any incorporated territories.
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