By Kevin Liffey
LONDON, Sept 24 (Reuters) – The strongly pro-Kremlin editor of Russia’s state-run RT news channel expressed anger on Saturday that enlistment officers were sending call-up papers to the wrong men, as frustration about a military mobilisation grew across Russia.
Wednesday’s announcement of Russia’s first public mobilisation since World War Two, to shore up its faltering invasion of Ukraine, has triggered a rush for the border by eligible men, the arrests of over 1,000 protesters, and unease in the wider population.
Now, it is also attracting criticism from among the Kremlin’s own official supporters, something almost unheard of in Russia since the invasion began seven months ago.
“It has been announced that privates can be recruited up to the age of 35. Summonses are going to 40-year-olds,” the RT editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, railed on her Telegram channel.
“They’re infuriating people, as if on purpose, as if out of spite. As if they’d been sent by Kyiv.”
In another rare public sign of turmoil at the top, the defence ministry said the deputy minister in charge of logistics, four-star General Dmitry Bulgakov, had been replaced “for transfer to another role”. It gave no further details.
Russia meanwhile appears set to formally annex a swathe of Ukrainian territory next week, according to Russia’s three main news agencies. This follows so-called referendums in four occupied regions of Ukraine that began on Friday. Kyiv and the West have denounced the votes as a sham and said outcomes in favour of annexation are pre-determined.
For the mobilisation effort, officials have said 300,000 troops are needed, with priority given to people with recent military experience and vital skills. The Kremlin has denied reports by two Russian news outlets based abroad – Novaya Gazeta Europe and Meduza – that the real target is more than 1 million.
Russia officially counts millions of former conscripts as reservists – most of the male population of fighting age – and Wednesday’s decree announcing the “partial mobilisation” gave no criteria for who would be called up.
Reports have surfaced across Russia of men with no military experience or past draft age suddenly receiving call-up papers, adding to a wave of outrage that has revived dormant – and banned – anti-war demonstrations.
Reuters images from St Petersburg showed police in helmets and riot gear pinning protesters to the ground and kicking one of them before carrying them into vans.
Earlier, the head of the Kremlin’s Human Rights Council, Valery Fadeyev, publicly announced that he had written to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu with a request to “urgently resolve” problems of the mobilisation.
His 400-word Telegram posting criticised the way exemptions were being applied and listed several cases of inappropriate enlistment including nurses and midwives with no military experience.
“Some (recruiters) hand over the call-up papers at 2 a.m., as if they think we’re all draft dodgers,” he said.
On Friday, two days after enlistment began, the defence ministry listed some sectors in which employers could nominate staff for exemptions.
There has been a particular outcry among ethnic minorities in remote, economically deprived areas in Siberia, where Russia’s professional armed forces have long recruited disproportionately.
Since Wednesday, people have been prepared to queue for hours to cross into Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Finland or Georgia, scared that Russia might close its borders, although the Kremlin has said reports of an exodus are exaggerated.
The governor of Russia’s Buryatia region, which adjoins Mongolia and is home to an ethnic Mongol minority, acknowledged on Friday that some had received papers in error and said those who had not served in the army or who had medical exemptions would not be called up.
On Saturday, Tsakhia Elbegdorj, president of Mongolia until 2017 and now head of the World Mongol Federation, promised those fleeing the draft, especially three Russian Mongol groups, a warm welcome, and bluntly called on Putin to end the war.
“The Buryat Mongols, Tuva Mongols, and Kalmyk Mongols have … been used as nothing more than cannon fodder,” he said in a video message, wearing a ribbon in Ukrainian yellow-and-blue.
“Today you are fleeing brutality, cruelty, and likely death. Tomorrow you will start freeing your country from dictatorship.”
The mobilisation, and the hasty organisation of the votes in occupied Ukrainian territories, came hard on the heels of a lightning Ukrainian offensive in the Kharkiv region this month – Moscow’s sharpest reverse of the seven-month-old war.
The interior ministry of the Russian region of North Ossetia advised people not to try to leave the country for Georgia at the Verkhny Lars frontier post, where it said 2,300 cars were waiting to cross.
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EXPLAINER-What does Vladimir Putin’s ‘partial’ mobilisation mean for Russia’s military machine?
EXPLAINER-Russia unfolds annexation plan for Ukraine
WRAPUP-Russia holds votes in occupied parts of Ukraine; Kyiv says residents coerced
(Reporting by Reuters Editing by Peter Graff and Frances Kerry)
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