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 commanders of Ukraine’s controversial Azov Regiment in a highly 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 over the mobilization, which is supposed to call up 300,000 reservists or more.

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, while Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed reports of booked-out flights and queues to leave Russia as “false information.”

“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 military commissariat, or local military recruitment and draft office, was set on fire, one of dozens of similar attacks across Russia in recent months, indicating the depth of antipathy to military recruitment efforts.

Russia’s pro-war far right, meanwhile, had a different cause for fury: a prisoner exchange that freed the Azov commanders long branded by Russia as “Nazis” in return for dozens of prisoners held in Ukraine including Viktor Medvedchuk, reputed to be Putin’s closest Ukrainian friend and the leader of Ukraine’s main pro-Kremlin political party, which was banned by Ukrainian authorities in June.

The dual backlash over mobilization and the prisoner exchange showed Putin facing his most acute crisis since the 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.

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

With his options diminishing, Putin has taken increasingly perilous decisions, including the partial mobilization, which risks swinging public sentiment against the war. In a national address Wednesday, Putin also proclaimed his support for steps toward annexing four Ukrainian regions that he does not fully control militarily or politically, which risks fierce fighting and potentially humiliating defeat.

Putin also used his speech to make a thinly veiled threat that Russia would use nuclear weapons. Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, now the deputy head of the country’s Security Council, reiterated that threat on Thursday and upped the ante, specifically warning that Russia would be willing to use “strategic nuclear weapons” to protect any Ukrainian territories absorbed by Moscow.

“Referendums will be held, and…

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