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MOSCOW — Russians again protested against President Vladimir Putin’s decision to draft additional forces for his struggling military operation in Ukraine — holding scattered demonstrations in dozens of cities across Russia on Saturday despite threats of arrest and a heavy police presence.
As nightfall set, over 700 people had been detained nationwide, with the majority of arrests in Moscow and St. Petersburg, according to the human rights monitoring group OVD-INFO.
The demonstrations came as Russians continued to grapple with the impact of a Kremlin order to call up an additional 300,000 troops for the military campaign — a move President Putin has framed as “partial mobilization.”
“I haven’t heard the word ‘war’ out of Putin’s mouth. And if there’s no war then how can we have a mobilization?” said Natalya Zurina, a retired university professor, in an interview with NPR.
“He’s calling up our young boys to die for nothing. I just couldn’t stay home,” added Zurina.
Confusion over who would be called up has led to an exodus of young men out of Russia, with long lines forming at Russia’s borders and air tickets out of the country hard to come by.
Demonstrations against the draft effort earlier in the week led to more than 1,300 arrests, according to rights groups.
On a rainy Saturday in Moscow, police and OMON riot troops appeared well positioned ahead of a late afternoon protest at a location organizers chose at the last moment.
“Putin said he wouldn’t change the constitution. He changed the constitution. Putin said he there wouldn’t be mobilization and yet here we are,” said a young man in his 20s to NPR at the Moscow protest.
He did not have the opportunity to give his name before OMON troops suddenly approached, inspected his documents, and took him away.
Anastasia, a designer who declined to give her last name out of concern for her safety, said she had come to see whether she was alone in her anger over Putin’s decision to send additional troops into a conflict she never supported.
“I have two relatives directly impacted by this decision but thankfully they’re now on their way out of the country,” she tells NPR.
“It’s a tragedy what’s happening,” she added through tears.
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NPR witnessed several dozen arrests as police checked documents and seemingly made arrests at random.
“I was just coming out of the metro!” yelled one man as he was thrown up against the side of a police van.
Online videos later showed riot troops appearing to detain people in a tourist park that overlooks the Kremlin — including one man wearing a food delivery uniform.
There were scenes of violence as well: in Saint Petersburg, a video shared online showed riot police beating a young protester on his head as he lay on the ground.
In Moscow, a video showed a woman’s screams coming from inside a police van before the car’s engine drowned out her cries. (NPR has not independently verified the authenticity of the videos.)
The arrests also unfolded as the government raised the consequences of dissent.
On Saturday, the Russian leader signed into law a bill that now criminalizes refusal to serve in the military with up to 10 years in prison.
The move capped a week that saw the measure rushed through both the lower and upper houses of Russia’s parliament.