‘I’d rather leave than fight’: Russians react to Putin’s draft

Alexander, 33, found out about Vladimir Putin’s decision to order a partial mobilisation during an emotional call from his wife.

“Sasha, they can take you,” she told him shortly after he’d arrived at his office in downtown Moscow.

While Alexander had served in the army as a conscript nearly 15 years ago, he never saw combat. That puts him comparatively low in the mobilisation draft, Russia’s first since the second world war.

Still, like many others, he is worried that he could receive a povestka, his draft papers, and be sent to the front.

“I’d rather leave than fight in this war,” he said in a short interview over a messenger app. “If they call me up, then I would want to leave [the country].”

But because of a new law criminalising desertion, he said, he thinks that he could face a decade in prison or more if he runs. “It’s impossible,” he said of the choice. In the end, he said, he would probably “have to go” into the army. But he’ll try to find a way around that.

Millions of Russians woke up on Wednesday to the realisation that they may actually have to participate in the country’s war and occupation of Ukraine. For nearly seven months, many Russians have tried to simply ignore the invasion of Ukraine. Now, for many families, the war has come home.

“This is the thing everyone was afraid of when the war started,” said one mother who believed her son could be drafted.

Others say they’re ready to fight. One man in his 30s with past military service said he believed that it was his patriotic duty to go into the army if he was drafted. “I want to be with my country,” he said.

So far, Russia has not closed the borders to prevent draft dodgers from leaving. But many think that could be the next step.

Russians fleeing the country have bought out tickets to countries like Turkey and Armenia, where they can travel without a visa. Individual tickets to those countries are not available until this weekend, and even then can cost more than $3,000. Aviasales, a popular air ticket site, even has an option to choose the destination “wherever I can go”.

Many European countries have closed their land borders to Russians, leaving still fewer options to escape. And even those Russians who leave could still face a criminal charge for desertion if they are drafted and don’t return.

Large state companies have begun handing out draft papers. “Among our colleagues, there are employees with combat experience, who have served in the armed forces,” wrote Sberbank, a state-owned banking and financial services company. “Some of them have their mobilisation papers and have been given their orders.”

Opponents of the war have begun to protest in cities across Russia. But the rallies are small, sometimes just a handful of people. In Novosibirsk, one man who was arrested at a protest yelled: “I don’t want to die for Putin and for you!” A protest is expected on Wednesday evening in Moscow as well. Russian police have already blocked off the central Pushkinskaya Square.

Opposition figures broadcast a prank call during which they reached the son of the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov and told him he’d been drafted for the war. He suggested that he would settle the matter “on a different level”.

Some opponents of the war have called it a mogilizatsia, a play on the word mobilisation and the word mogila, a grave.

“We know it’s a lot more dangerous than they say,” said Alexander. “Otherwise why would they need the draft?”