More than 1,300 people were arrested at anti-mobilization protests in towns and cities across Russia on Wednesday and Thursday, in the biggest public protests since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed reports of booked flights and queues to leave Russia as “false”.
“The information about a certain fever situation at airports is greatly exaggerated,” Peskov insisted during his daily conference call with reporters on Thursday.
But there were other signs of increased public backlash against Putin and his war, despite the Kremlin’s harsh 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.
Russia’s far-right war hawks, meanwhile, had another cause for fury: a prisoner swap that freed commanders from Ukraine’s controversial Azov Regiment, long labeled by Russia as “Nazis.” They were exchanged for dozens of prisoners held in Ukraine, including Viktor Medvedchuk, reputed to be Putin’s closest Ukrainian friend and the leader of the country’s main pro-Kremlin political party.
The dual backlash over the mobilization and prisoner exchange showed Putin was facing his most acute crisis since launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Not only is his country struggling to cope with punishing economic sanctions imposed by the West, but his military has suffered dramatic setbacks, including an embarrassing retreat from the northeastern Kharkiv region.
With his options diminishing, Putin has made increasingly dangerous decisions that could turn the Russian public against the war. In his national address on Wednesday, he voiced support for moves to annex four Ukrainian regions he does not fully control, risking fierce fighting and further humiliation.
Putin also used his speech to make a thinly veiled threat that Russia would use nuclear weapons. On Thursday, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy head of the country’s Security Council, made the threat explicit.
“Referendums will be held and the Donbas republics and other territories will be accepted in Russia,” Medvedev wrote on Telegram, warning that Russia would be willing to use “strategic nuclear weapons” for the “protection” of those territories.
In New York, where world leaders have gathered for the annual General Assembly, the top American and Russian diplomats clashed during a heated meeting of the UN Security Council.
Foreign Secretary Antony Blinken told the council that every member should “send a clear message that these reckless nuclear threats must stop immediately.” He also condemned the gruesome torture and murder of Ukrainian civilians discovered after Russia’s withdrawal from the towns of Izyum and Bucha.
“Wherever the Russian tide recedes, we discover the horror left in its wake,” Blinken said. “We cannot, we will not allow President Putin to get away with it.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rejected the accusations, accusing Ukrainian forces of killing civilians in the eastern Donbas region “with impunity”.
Lavrov also said that countries sending weapons to Ukraine or training its forces “to exhaust and weaken Russia” were direct parties to the war.
“Such a line means the direct involvement of Western countries in the Ukrainian conflict and makes them a party to it,” he said, leaving the room as soon as he finished speaking.
But amid the escalating rhetoric, the secretive prisoner exchange deal announced Wednesday night involving Turkey and Saudi Arabia showed that some behind-the-scenes diplomacy was still possible.
The deal was celebrated in Kiev, where the Azov commanders are widely regarded as heroes for their role in holding the line under Siege of Mariupol. The head of Ukraine’s Supreme Military Intelligence Directorate, Kyryl Budanov, alleged that some of the freed prisoners had been tortured. “There are persons who were subjected to very cruel torture and unfortunately the percentage of such persons among whom we returned is quite large,” he said.
In Russia, the deal was so toxic that the Kremlin distanced itself from the decision and the Defense Ministry would not confirm the details.
Medvedchuk, the ostensible centerpiece of the deal, was chief of staff to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma from 2002 to 2005 and has long played a Machiavellian role in Ukrainian politics.
Before Moscow’s failure to capture Kiev and topple Zelensky’s elected government, Medvedchuk was seen as a potential Kremlin puppet leader. But he is mainly known as a close friend of Putin. Medvedchuk has said that the Russian leader is the godfather of his daughter and that Putin has visited his mansion in Crimea.
Asked if Medvedchuk had been released, Peskov said: “I cannot comment on the prisoner exchange. I do not have the authority to do so.” A statement from the Russian Defense Ministry also failed to mention Medvedchuk.
Finally, Denis Pushilin, Moscow’s proxy leader in a separatist region of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, confirmed that he had accepted the exchange of 50 Russian soldiers, five pro-Russian fighters from Ukraine and Medvedchuk.
Sending Russian men to fight in a war to “denazify” Ukraine while releasing the Azov commanders and fighters was difficult for Russia to explain – given that Kremlin propaganda has for years portrayed the Azov group as fanatical terrorists and “Nazi” masterminds to be destroyed.
The exchange deal took place “under difficult circumstances,” Pushilin told Russian state television. “We gave them 215 people, including nationalist battalion fighters. They are war criminals. We were fully aware of that, but our aim was to bring our guys back as soon as possible.”
Hard-line nationalists branded the exchange a betrayal that undermined the cause of the war, on the same day Russia called up men to fight.
Among the harshest critics of the Russian military approach – for being too soft – is Igor Girkin, a former Russian FSB agent who led Moscow proxy fighters in 2014. He called the exchange of the Azov fighters “treason” in a social media post Thursday, blaming “as yet unidentified individuals from the top leadership of the Russian Federation.”
The release was “worse than a crime and worse than a mistake. This is INCREDIBLE STUPIDITY,” he complained. (Girkin is being tried in absentia by a court in The Hague for the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014.)
In Chechnya, regional dictator and close Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov said on Telegram that the Azov Regiment “terrorists” should not have been extradited.
“This is not true. Our fighters crushed the fascists in Mariupol, drove them into Azovstal, smoked them out of the cellars, died, were wounded and shell-shocked. The transfer of even one of these Azov terrorists should have been unacceptable. “
Putin has banked on public apathy to continue his war, and has stopped short of declaring a full national draft. But his mobilization, which is expected to call up at least 300,000 reservists, will force many more Russians to confront the brutal reality of the conflict in Ukraine.
Some protesters arrested while demonstrating against mobilization on Wednesday were handed military summonses at police stations, a move designed to discourage further dissent, particularly by men of fighting age. Peskov said it was perfectly legal. “It is not against the law. Therefore, there is no violation of the law,” he said.
Questions about the partial mobilization swirled Thursday, with confusion over who would escape the call-up and who would be forced to fight.
The role of Peskov’s own son, Nikolai Peskov, underscored the Russian suspicion that wealthy and politically connected individuals would be spared military service, and that the war would continue to be largely fought by men from poor regions far from Moscow.
Nikolai Peskov was less than enthusiastic about the idea he might be sent to fight when he got a call on Wednesday from Dmitry Nizovtsev, a member of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s team and an opposition YouTube channel anchor. Posing as a military official, Nizovtsev demanded that the younger Peskov appear at a local military commissariat the following day at 10:00 a.m.
“Of course I will not come tomorrow at 10 o’clock,” said Nikolai Peskov. “You must understand that I am Mr. Peskov and it is not quite right for me to be there. In short, I want to solve this on another level.”
Natalia Abbakamova in Riga, Latvia, and David Stern in Kiev contributed to this report.
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 September 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West seeking to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.
The fight: A successful Ukrainian counter-offensive has forced a large Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled towns and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war, leaving behind large amounts of military equipment.
Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are due to take place from September 23 to 27 in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson from Friday.
Pictures: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground since the start of the war — here is some of their most powerful work.