Russian mobilization blasted as as staged referendums continue

As top Russian officials on Sunday warned of problems in Moscow’s rushed mobilization of men to fight in Ukraine, Russia launched new attacks on Odessa, where three Iranian kamikaze drones hit an administration building, and on the Zaporizhzhia region, which was struck by multiple Russian missiles overnight.

Russia’s mobilization drive, and the Kremlin’s staging of illegal “referendums” over five days in four occupied regions of Ukraine, mark a sharp escalation by President Vladimir Putin in his effort to hold the line in the war against Ukraine in response to multiple Russian military failures, including a major retreat in Kharkiv region earlier this month.

Scuffles broke out Sunday in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, where screaming women struggled with police, trying to prevent them from dragging male protesters to police vans, in rare signs of dissent that underscored the dangers of regional unrest over the mobilization.

Earlier Sunday in Dagestan, an impoverished southern region that has borne a disproportionate share of military casualties in Ukraine, furious residents blocked a highway protesting mobilization after 110 men from Endirey village were drafted, including some who had recently returned from the war, independent local media reported.

The staging of referendums, amid warnings from Russian officials that Moscow could use nuclear weapons to defend illegally annexed regions, appears designed to shake Ukraine’s resolve and to undermine Western military support for Kyiv.

But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” said Putin’s actions have instead underscored that the Russian army “is not able to fight with Ukraine anymore. … We have become even more united now than ever.”

As armed soldiers accompanied officials house-to-house observing people filling in ballots, the referendums have met none of the basic criteria for democratic voting, and they are illegal under international law.

Putin is expected to address both houses of parliament Friday, state media reported, where he will likely endorse the annexation of the regions after the expected official announcement that the regions voted in favor of joining Russia. Russia has a long history of flawed and fraudulent elections, but the Kremlin will not be satisfied with anything less than a massive “yes” vote, according to analysts.

Putin, Zelensky said, will say: “Now it’s Russia. It’s our territory. Look, we conducted referenda. Now, it’s the West who attacks Russia. Now, the West attacks our territories.”

Yet even Moscow’s close ally Serbia rejected the referendums, when its foreign minister, Nikola Selakovic, told journalists that they violated the principles of territorial integrity, sovereignty and the inviolability of borders, according to Serbian cable network on Sunday and Russian state-owned RIA Novosti.

Ukrainian officials said no one was injured in Sunday’s drone strikes on Odessa, but video images of a large explosion in the city center underscored the potential of the Iranian drones to cause destruction and terror in civilian areas and to keep Ukraine off balance.

Russian state media reported that a Ukrainian strike on a hotel in Kherson killed a pro-Kremlin former Ukrainian lawmaker, Oleksiy Zhuravko.

Moscow, meanwhile, continued to have problems of its own, with new protests on Sunday over a mobilization effort so poorly handled that it has triggered widespread anger and controversy, even among Russian officials and top propagandists.

There were dozens of reports of men being conscripted despite being elderly, sick, disabled, unfit or exempt from military service, for example, because they were caring for a disabled family member or were students or IT workers.

The alarm over mobilization underscored its potential for opposition within the large segment of the Russian population that passively supports the war — although the Kremlin may be banking on anger waning after the initial shock and fear that has followed the announcement.

Alexei, a 36-year-old Russian who was exempted from conscription because of heart problems, said Sunday in a phone interview that he had fled to Astana, Kazakhstan, because he could be called up despite being earlier exempted from military service for medical reasons.

“There are already so many examples of old and unfit men and students receiving summons,” he said. “What is going on with this mobilization is a total disaster. I don’t want to sacrifice my life for someone absolutely crazy and I am not ashamed that I am fleeing now.

“It’s not that I am a coward or anything, but nobody is attacking my motherland. On the contrary, my motherland is an aggressor and I don’t want to be part of this aggression and obviously I do not want to die,” he said. He said his life was falling to pieces, “but at least I won’t go to war.”

He is one of thousands of young men who have flocked to Russia’s borders in recent days to escape mobilization.

Earlier in the city of Yakutsk, in eastern Siberia, several hundred women rallied against mobilization, chanting, “No to war,” several local media outlets and activist groups reported, posting videos. Police broke up the rally and arrested participants, they reported.

Valentina Matviyenko, a close Putin ally who is the speaker of the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, warned Sunday that partial mobilization must be handled “without a single mistake.”

The problems in mobilization reflect the rush by Russian regional leaders to satisfy the Kremlin’s demand for new draftees in the space of several days, with scant regard for quality. Matviyenko, in comments on social media, complained of “unacceptable” cases of people being mobilized who clearly should not have been.

The governor of Belgorod, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said he had received many complaints, including 75 cases of men wrongly mobilized that were overturned after his intervention.

Prominent Kremlin propagandist Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of RT and one of the loudest cheerleaders of the war, published an astonishing Twitter thread listing cases of people wrongly mobilized, including a 63-year-old with diabetes and cerebral ischemia who was found fit to serve, a 35-year-old with a spinal fracture and artificial vertebrate, along with students and lone carers of disabled people. Simonyan earlier tweeted that the process was so poor, it was as if Kyiv had carried it out.

Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, also acknowledged the problems in comments Sunday on Telegram, calling on people to report violations to authorities.

Russia’s initial “partial mobilization” was supposed to be limited to men in the military reserves with military experience. A different picture has emerged since, however, with many of those called up having never previously served.

The sense of panic deepened when two independent Russian media outlets reported that new travel restrictions would come in Wednesday barring men of military age from leaving without permission from military enlistment offices. Several Russian regions have already restricted reservists from leaving.

As officials went into damage control mode, two regional leaders announced that planeloads of men who had been erroneously conscripted were returning home.

Russian journalist and publisher Sergey Parkhomenko dipped into a neighborhood chat group in his previous Moscow suburb, which usually discusses “nothing more serious than the search for a good manicure, the disappearance of a French bulldog puppy or the need to pay to repair a lock on a yard gate.”

“And I see people arguing about mobilization, about the war and about whether men are willing to die for something they absolutely don’t need to, killing people who did them no harm,” he said in a post on Facebook, arguing that Kremlin propaganda efforts seemed to have “collapsed in one day” as people suddenly felt the impact of the war on their lives.

Andrei Turchak, the head of Putin’s United Russia party, portrayed the referendum results as a foregone conclusion. “There’s just a little bit [of time] left, and the Kherson region will return to the big Russian family,” he said in a visit to occupied Kherson on Sunday. “As we have always said, Russia is here.”

He said after the final day of the referendums on Tuesday, “we will formalize de jure what de facto exists today and we will live as one big friendly Russian, Kherson, Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporozhye family,” he said, referring to the occupied regions including Zaporizhzhia.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 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 our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can help support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.

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