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. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed reports of booked-out flights and queues to leave Russia as “false.”
“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 local military recruitment office was set on fire, one of dozens of similar attacks across Russia in recent months.
Russia’s war hawks on the far right, meanwhile, had a different cause for fury: a prisoner exchange that freed commanders from Ukraine’s controversial Azov Regiment, long branded by Russia as “Nazis.” They were swapped for dozens of prisoners held in Ukraine, including Viktor Medvedchuk, reputed to be Putin’s closest Ukrainian friend and the leader of the country’s main pro-Kremlin political party.
The dual backlash over mobilization and the prisoner exchange showed Putin facing his most acute crisis since 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.
With his options diminishing, Putin has made increasingly perilous decisions that could turn the Russian public against the war. In his national address Wednesday, he voiced support for steps toward annexing four Ukrainian regions that he does not fully control, which risks fierce fighting and further humiliation.
Putin also used his speech to make a thinly veiled threat that Russia would use nuclear weapons. On Thursday, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, now the deputy head of the country’s Security Council, made the threat explicit.
“Referendums will be held, and the Donbas republics and other territories will be accepted into Russia,” Medvedev posted on Telegram, warning that Russia would be willing to use “strategic nuclear weapons” for the “protection” of those territories.
In New York, where world leaders are gathered for the annual United Nations General Assembly, the top U.S. and Russian diplomats clashed during a heated meeting of the U.N. Security Council.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the council that every member should “send a clear message that these reckless nuclear threats must stop immediately.” He also condemned the gruesome torture and murder of Ukrainian civilians discovered after Russia’s withdrawal from the cities of Izyum and Bucha.
“Wherever the Russian tide recedes, we discover the horror that’s left in its wake,” Blinken said. “We can not, we will not, allow President Putin to get away with it.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied the charges and accused Ukrainian forces of killing civilians in the eastern Donbas region “with impunity.”
Lavrov also said that countries sending weapons to Ukraine or training its forces “to deplete and weaken Russia” were direct parties to the war.
“Such a line signifies the direct involvement of Western countries in the Ukrainian conflict, and makes them a party thereto,” he said, walking out of the chamber as soon as he finished speaking.
Yet amid the escalating rhetoric, the secretive prisoner exchange deal announced Wednesday night, which involved the mediation of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, showed that some behind-the-scenes diplomacy was still possible.
The deal was celebrated in Kyiv, where the Azov commanders are widely regarded as heroes for their role in holding the line during the siege of Mariupol. The head of Ukraine’s chief military intelligence directorate, Kyryl Budanov, alleged that some of the liberated prisoners had been tortured. “There are persons who were subjected to very cruel torture, and unfortunately the percentage of such persons among whom we returned is quite large,” he said.
In Russia, the deal was so toxic that the Kremlin distanced itself from the decision and the Ministry of Defense would not confirm the details.
Medvedchuk, the apparent centerpiece of the deal, was chief of staff to former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma from 2002 to 2005 and has long played a Machiavellian role in Ukrainian politics.
Before the failure of Moscow to seize Kyiv and topple the elected government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Medvedchuk was seen as a potential puppet leader for the Kremlin. But he is known mainly as a close friend of Putin. Medvedchuk has said the Russian leader is godfather to his daughter and Putin has visited his palatial mansion in Crimea.
Asked whether Medvedchuk had been freed, Peskov said: “I can’t comment on the prisoner exchange. I don’t have powers to do so.” A statement from the Russian Defense Ministry also failed to mention Medvedchuk.
Eventually, Denis Pushilin, Moscow’s proxy leader in a separatist area of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, confirmed that he had agreed to the exchange for 50 Russian servicemen, five pro-Russian fighters from Ukraine and Medvedchuk.
Sending Russian men to fight in a war to “denazify” Ukraine, at the same time as releasing the Azov commanders and fighters, was difficult for Russia to explain — given that, for years, Kremlin propaganda has portrayed the Azov group as fanatical terrorists and “Nazi” ringleaders who must be destroyed.
The exchange deal took place “in difficult circumstances,” Pushilin told Russian state television. “We gave them 215 people, including nationalistic battalion fighters. They are war criminals. We were perfectly aware of that, but our goal was to bring our guys back as soon as possible.”
Hard-line nationalists branded the exchange as a betrayal that undercut the reason for the war, on the same day Russia was calling up men to fight.
Among the toughest critics of the Russian military approach — for being too soft — is Igor Girkin, a former Russian FSB agent who commanded Moscow proxy fighters in 2014. He called the exchange of the Azov fighters “treason,” in a post on social media Thursday, blaming “as yet unidentified persons from the top leadership of the Russian Federation.”
The release was “worse than a crime and worse than a mistake. This is INCREDIBLE STUPIDITY,” he complained. (Girkin is being tried in absentia by a court in The Hague over the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014.)
In Chechnya, the regional dictator and close Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov said on Telegram that the Azov Regiment “terrorists” should not have been handed over.
“It is not right. Our fighters crushed the fascists in Mariupol, drove them into Azovstal, smoked them out of the basements, died, got wounded and shell-shocked. The transfer of even one of these Azov terrorists should have been unacceptable.”
Putin has relied on public apathy to continue his war, and has stopped short of declaring a full national draft. But his mobilization, which is supposed to call up at least 300,000 reservists, will force many more Russians to confront the brutal reality of the conflict in Ukraine.
In a speech posted online late Thursday, Zelensky, switching to Russian, addressed Russian citizens directly, invoking the thousands of their countrymen already killed and wounded in Ukraine. “Want more? No?” he asked. “Then protest. Fight. Run away. Or surrender to Ukrainian captivity. These are the options for you to survive.”
Some Russian protesters who were arrested while demonstrating against mobilization Wednesday were handed military summonses at police stations, a move designed to deter further dissent, especially by fighting-age men. Peskov said it was perfectly legal. “It does not contravene the law. Therefore, there is no violation of the law,” he said.
Questions about the partial mobilization swirled on Thursday, with confusion over who would escape being called up and who would be forced to fight.
The role of Peskov’s own son, Nikolai Peskov, underscored Russian suspicions that wealthy and politically connected figures would be spared from military service, and that the war would continue to be fought largely by men from impoverished regions, far from Moscow.
Nikolai Peskov was less than enthusiastic about the idea he could be sent to fight when he was phoned Wednesday by Dmitry Nizovtsev, a member of the team of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny and an opposition YouTube channel anchor. Nizovtsev, posing as a military official, demanded that the younger Peskov appear at a local military commissariat the following day at 10 a.m.
“Obviously I won’t come tomorrow at 10 a.m.,” Nikolai Peskov said. “You have to understand that I am Mr. Peskov and it’s not exactly right for me to be there. In short, I will solve this on another level.”
Natalia Abbakamova in Riga, Latvia, and David Stern in Kyiv contributed to this report.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.
The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.