Putin faces public anger in Russia over mobilization and prisoner swap

Russian families bade tearful farewells on Thursday to thousands of sons and husbands abruptly summoned for military duty as part of President Vladimir Putin’s new mobilization, while pro-war Russian nationalists raged over the release of Ukrainian commanders in a secretive prisoner exchange.

As women hugged their husbands and young men boarded buses to leave for 15 days of training before potentially being deployed to Russia’s stumbling war effort in Ukraine, there were signs of mounting public anger.

More than 1,300 people were arrested at anti-mobilization protests in cities and towns across Russia on Wednesday and Thursday, in the largest public protests since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed reports of booked-out flights and queues to leave Russia as “false.”

“The information about a certain feverish situation in airports is very much exaggerated,” Peskov insisted during his daily conference call with reporters on Thursday.

But there were other signs of increased public pushback 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 war hawks on the far right, meanwhile, had a different cause for fury: a prisoner exchange that freed commanders from Ukraine’s controversial Azov Regiment, long branded by Russia as “Nazis.” They were swapped 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 mobilization and the prisoner exchange showed Putin facing his most acute crisis since he launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Not only is his country grappling with punishing economic sanctions imposed by the West, but his military has suffered dramatic setbacks, including an embarrassing retreat from the northeastern Kharkiv region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sept. 21 ordered a partial military mobilization, as Moscow’s troops battle a Ukrainian counteroffensive. (Video: Reuters)

As mobilization begins in Russia, sold-out flights, protests and arrests

With his options diminishing, Putin has made increasingly perilous decisions that could turn the Russian public against the war. In his national address Wednesday, he voiced support for steps toward annexing four Ukrainian regions that he does not fully control, which risks 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 the 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 into Russia,” Medvedev posted 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 are gathered for the annual United Nations General Assembly, the top U.S. and Russian diplomats clashed during a heated meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

Secretary of State 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 cities of Izyum and Bucha.

“Wherever the Russian tide recedes, we discover the horror that’s left in its wake,” Blinken said. “We can not, we will not, allow President Putin to get away with it.”

What does Putin’s partial military mobilization mean for Russia and Ukraine?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied the charges and accused 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 deplete and weaken Russia” were direct parties to the war.

“Such a line signifies the direct involvement of Western countries in the Ukrainian conflict, and makes them a party thereto,” he said, walking out of the chamber as soon as he finished speaking.

Yet amid the escalating rhetoric, the secretive prisoner exchange deal announced Wednesday night, which involved the mediation of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, showed that some behind-the-scenes diplomacy was still possible.

The deal was celebrated in Kyiv, where the Azov commanders are widely regarded as heroes for their role in holding the line during the siege of Mariupol. The head of Ukraine’s chief military intelligence directorate, Kyryl Budanov, alleged that some of the liberated prisoners had been tortured. “There are persons who were subjected to very cruel torture, and unfortunately the percentage of such persons among…

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