This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
More than 1,300 people have been detained in Russia after rare anti-war protests were held around the country in the wake of President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a partial military mobilization.
The demonstrations were held in 38 cities on September 21, according to OVD-Info, following Putin’s announcement the same day.
The vast majority of the detentions came in Russia’s two largest cities, with at least 530 recorded in Moscow and more than 470 in St. Petersburg. Others were detained in large cities including Chelyabinsk, Yekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk, Ufa, Krasnodar, and Irkutsk.
The protest in Moscow included many women who chanted “Life to our children!” and “No to war!” Videos posted on social media indicated that several hundred people took part in the Moscow protest, where people formed a chain by clasping their hands. The police pulled protesters out of the chain one by one.
Participants held up posters with the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag and chanted “No to mobilization!” and “Russia without Putin.”
Authorities warned people that they faced up to 15 years in prison for taking part in the demonstrations.
In St. Petersburg, opponents of the mobilization order, including many women, gathered at St. Isaac’s Cathedral before they were rounded up by the police. There were reports that law enforcement officers beat demonstrators with rubber truncheons during arrests.
Putin announced the mobilization, due to start immediately, in a broadcast to the nation as the invasion of Ukraine nears seven months and while Kyiv is regaining territory in a counteroffensive.
“We are talking about partial mobilization, that is, only citizens who are currently in the reserve will be subject to conscription, and above all, those who served in the armed forces, have a certain military specialty, and relevant experience,” Putin said.
Putin said his aim was to “liberate” Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, claiming without providing any proof that most people in the region did not want to return to what he called the “yoke” of Ukraine.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a televised interview on September 21 that only those with relevant combat and service experience would be mobilized and not conscripts and students.
The address came a day after Russian-occupied regions in eastern and southern Ukraine announced plans to hold votes on being incorporated into Russia, triggering outrage and condemnations not only in Kyiv but from much of the international community.
Analysts say the Kremlin-backed efforts to swallow up four regions could set the stage for Moscow to escalate the war following Ukrainian successes on the battlefield.
The referendums, which have been expected to take place since the first months of the war, will start on September 23 in the Luhansk, Kherson, partly Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhya, and Donetsk regions.
Putin also warned the West that “it’s not a bluff” that Russia would use all the means at its disposal to protect its territory.
He accused the West of engaging in “nuclear blackmail” and claimed, without providing proof, that “high-ranking representatives of the leading NATO states” had allegedly made statements “about the possibility of using nuclear weapons of mass destruction against Russia.”
“To those who allow themselves such statements regarding Russia, I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction…and when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal,” Putin said, adding “It’s not a bluff.”
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace described Putin’s mobilization announcement as “an admission that his invasion is failing.”
“He and his defense minister have sent tens of thousands of their own citizens to their deaths, ill-equipped and badly led,” Wallace said in a statement. “No amount of threats and propaganda can hide the fact that Ukraine is winning this war, the international community are united and Russia is becoming a global pariah.”
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Putin’s mobilization order was a sign of panic at the Kremlin, that should not be taken as a direct threat of full-out war with the West.
“The mobilization, calling for referenda in the Donetsk, it is all a sign of panic. His rhetoric on nuclear weapons is something we have heard many times before, and it leaves us cold,” Rutte told Dutch broadcaster NOS.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been the target of international criticism at the UN General Assembly in New York.
U.S. President Joe Biden used his speech at the global forum on September 21 to say Russia has “shamelessly violated the core tenets” of the UN with its “brutal, needless war” in Ukraine.
He said Putin’s new nuclear threats against Europe showed “reckless disregard” for Russia’s responsibilities as a signer of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation Of Nuclear Weapons.