Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy charged Russia with deliberately targeting Ukrainians in occupied parts of Ukraine in Moscow’s call-up of more soldiers for its invasion of the country.
Zelenskyy said that in Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, as well as “other parts of Ukraine, which they so far control,” Russians and separatist loyalists are seeking to carry out a “criminal mobilization” of local men into the Russian army.
“In Crimea, in areas with dense populations of qırımlılar [Crimean Tatars], they are trying to find and mobilize as many men as possible,” the president said in his televised address on Friday night. “This is a deliberate attempt by Russia to destroy the Crimean Tatar people, this is a deliberate attempt by the aggressor state to take the lives of as many residents of the territory the Russian troops invaded as possible.”
Zelenskyy urged Ukrainians to resist.
“I have a simple request to all our people in the temporarily occupied territories: Do the most important thing – save your own lives, and help us weaken and destroy the occupiers,” Zelenskyy said. “Hide from the Russian mobilization by any means. Avoid conscription letters. Try to get to the free territory of Ukraine.”
He said that anyone who does get drafted into the Russian army should sabotage the enemy’s activities and provide the Ukrainian side with any important information about the Russian forces, such as the location of their bases, headquarters and munitions warehouses.
“And at the first available opportunity, switch to our positions,” Zelenskyy said.
Kyiv is far from panicking about Russia’s mobilization.
Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, tweeted earlier this week that Ukraine “will destroy anyone who comes with weapons to our land, whether voluntarily or by mobilization.”
Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former adviser to Zelenskyy who was Ukrainian defense minister in 2019-2020, believes that newly recruited troops to the Russian army are unlikely to have proper training and therefore “will not fight qualitatively.”
“We’ve seen that before. Time is necessary to prepare a serviceman well. No one will spend it,” Zagorodnyuk said in an interview with POLITICO. “If they [Russians] train servicemen for two weeks and throw them into battle after that, nothing good will come of it for them.”
Another problem for Moscow is that many Russian servicemen “don’t understand what they’re doing in Ukraine,” Zagorodnyuk said. “We’ve seen this many times. When they encounter the brutality of war, when they realize that they are being forced to kill civilians, to bomb peaceful cities, … they get confused, they fight with absolutely no motivation,” he said.
Zelenskyy’s statement on Friday echoed his message to potential Russian conscripts earlier this week. Russian citizens who want to avoid going to war should protest against the mobilization and Putin’s regime — “fight back,” “run away,” he said.
Ukraine’s military command said on Saturday that over 53,000 Russian troops have been killed since the start of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, when Russia deployed around 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders.
Estimates by Western intelligence are significantly lower. In July, CIA Director William Burns said the U.S. estimated that 15,000 Russian troops had been killed in the war, and about 45,000 wounded.
Alongside the draft in Russia and the occupied territories of Ukraine, four Ukrainian regions, currently partly controlled by Moscow, have started voting in disputed referendums on the issue of formally joining Russia.
The referendums are illegal, according to Ukrainian law, and were branded by Zelenskyy as “sham” votes. “The world will react absolutely justly to the sham referenda — they will be unequivocally condemned,” he said on Friday night.
According to the Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, the Russian leadership plans to swiftly incorporate the four regions — Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — after the results of the vote are officially proclaimed.
Peskov added that once these territories are incorporated, Ukraine’s attempts to retake them will “definitely” be considered by Moscow as an attack on Russia itself. This could potentially provoke the Kremlin to use tactical nuclear weapons, as Putin warned in his address on Wednesday.
In the Donetsk region’s port city of Mariupol, reduced to rubble during heavy fighting over many weeks earlier this year, residents “are being stopped right on the streets and forced to vote,” according to Petro Andryushchenko, an aide with the exiled Mariupol government.
“It would be possible to call this all a circus, if not for the active involvement of people with rifles,” he said.
Serhiy Gaidai, the governor of the Luhansk region, said in a Facebook post that “the occupiers have closed the cities and people are not allowed to leave, in order to not lose [their] votes.”
“If people don’t open the doors to their apartments — they threaten to knock them down,” Gaidai added in a separate post.
The governor said he is convinced that the tactic of collecting votes through door-to-door visits is also an attempt to detect men who could be conscripted to fight against Kyiv.
Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to Zelenskyy’s office, called the referendums a “propaganda show” for conscription.