Russia launched renewed strikes on Ukrainian cities on Saturday, as Moscow’s mobilisation drive to refresh its struggling war effort continued to provide scenes of chaos across Russia.
Ukrainian officials said a Russian missile hit an apartment building in the city of Zaporizhzhia, killing one person and injuring seven others, and said a total of three people were killed and 19 injured in strikes across the south and east of the country.
In Russia, even Kremlin cheerleaders expressed unease at the progress of the mobilisation drive, announced by the president, Vladimir Putin, on Wednesday. Viral videos have shown mobilised men who appear variously to be confused, drunk or angry at receiving the call-up.
There are many reports of local authorities rounding up people who have not served before, have illnesses or are over 50, contradicting Putin’s announcement of a “partial mobilisation” that would only involve those with military experience. There are reports of men and women with young children being mobilised, and many videos of emotional family farewells.
Margarita Simonyan, the hawkish head of propaganda outlet RT, complained that military offices across the country were rounding up those who were not supposed to be called up. “It’s as if they were tasked by Kyiv to do that,” she said, in a rare criticism of authorities.
The mobilisation drive is a huge gamble by Putin after months in which the war in Ukraine has been portrayed as a “special operation” that would be completed without bloodshed. Now, the call-up brings the war closer to home for hundreds of thousands of families, and has prompted a race for the borders for many Russian men eager to avoid the draft.
There was a fresh wave of anti-war and anti-mobilisation protests in cities across Russia on Saturday, although the numbers were small as police have cracked down harshly on previous protests.
In the far-eastern city of Khabarovsk, one man was detained for a sign that read: “Mobilise yourself, you lice-infested rat.” Protests were expected in Moscow and St Petersburg late in the afternoon.
A further sign of problems in Moscow came as the defence ministry sacked Gen Dmitry Bulgakov, the deputy minister in charge of logistics. The ministry gave no reason for firing Bulgakov, who had worked in the role for many years.
“The top appears to be looking for people to blame at the moment. Someone had to be punished, and [minister of defence Sergei] Shoigu doesn’t want to put the blame on the generals, on the military,” said a former defence ministry official who has worked with Bulgakov.
“The mantra is: ‘We are fighting well but not just getting the logistics we need, we aren’t getting our breakfast on time,’ so to speak. It is not the fault of the guys fighting.”
The New York Times reported on Saturday that Putin has taken personal control of the war effort, citing US officials briefed on classified intelligence who suggest the Russian president has overruled military commanders, insisting, for example, that the Russian army should not prepare a retreat from the city of Kherson.
The mobilisation drive comes as Russia is holding “referendums” in areas of Ukraine it controls, in which the remaining residents are asked whether they favour their regions becoming independent states and then joining Russia.
The votes, which have been widely dismissed as illegitimate in Kyiv and the west, are a pretext for Russia to annex Ukrainian territory. Putin promised on Wednesday that Moscow would defend its new territories with all available means, including nuclear weapons.
The voting began on Friday and is due to continue until Tuesday in the Russia-controlled parts of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk regions. In some places, election officials set up mobile polling stations in courtyards, citing security concerns, and there were numerous videos showing people filling in ballots under the watchful eye of police.
There is little doubt that the Kremlin will announce an overwhelming decision to join Russia, but Ukrainian officials have said Russia declaring an annexation will not stop Kyiv’s attempts to win back the territories.
“Half of the population fled the Donetsk region because of Russian terror and constant shelling, voting against Russia with their feet, and the second half has been cheated and scared,” said the governor of Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko.