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Putin's call-up of reservists sparks protests, exodus of Russian men, but he looks set to escalate Ukraine war

Russians try to flee following Putin’s order
Russians attempt to leave country following Putin’s partial mobilization order 02:55

Kyiv, Ukraine — Russian reservists are on their way to the front lines in Ukraine after President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization of his military reserves. But the move has not gone down well. In the hours after Putin made the announcement, thousands of Russians in cities across the country defied the country's blanket ban on unauthorized demonstrations to take to the streets in protest. More than 1,000 were arrested, according to an independent Russian monitoring group.

And while the Kremlin denies any exodus is taking place, there has been clear evidence of Russians, mostly men of fighting age, clambering to flee their country to avoid fighting in Putin's war in Ukraine.

As CBS News correspondent Debora Patta reports, Russian men, reservists between the ages of 18 and 50 from across the country, started receiving summons calling them up to report for military duty within hours of Putin making the announcement on Wednesday.

Video has shown young men boarding buses, bidding hasty goodbyes and tearful farewells to their families as they head off to training camps. 

For their loved ones left behind, there's just the cold grip of fear. Putin's professional soldiers have not fared well recently on the battlefields of northeast Ukraine, where they've lost a huge swath of the territory they occupied quickly after the invasion began on February 24.

Russian officials say the country has lost an estimated 6,000 soldiers, but the U.S. military estimates that close to 80,000 Russian troops have been killed or injured during the war. Ukraine has sustained huge casualties, too, with a commander putting the figure at about 9,000 a month ago.

Russian positions abandoned in Ukraine counteroffensive 02:45

But the counteroffensive launched by Ukrainian forces in and around the country's second largest city of Kharkiv just a few weeks ago has sent Russian forces scurrying — and it has lent significant momentum to Ukraine's war effort.

Many Russians, who still rely heavily on the country's state-controlled media for their information, won't have a full picture of the circumstances on the ground across the border in Ukraine. But the Kremlin's effort to obscure the truth seemingly failed to stem a rush for the border this week upon news of the call-up of reservists.

Russians arrive at Zvartnots airport in Yerevan, Armenia, September 21, 2022. Flights out of Russia were booked up this week after President Vladimir Putin introduced a "partial mobilization" of reservists to fight in Ukraine. KAREN MINASYAN/AFP/Getty

Flights out of the country have been booked solid for a couple days as Russians try to escape conscription. 

"That's why I'm here," a Russian passenger who identified himself only as Alex said after stepping off a plane Thursday in Istanbul, Turkey. "Not many Russian people want to fight and join the army."

Land border exits from Russia into neighboring Georgia, Finland and Serbia have also seen traffic backed up in recent days.

Vehicles wait to cross the border from Russia into Finland at the Nuijamaa border checkpoint in Lappeenranta, Finland, September 22, 2022. LAURI HEINO/Lehtikuva/AFP/Getty

In the remote far east of Russia, however, one long line that formed at the end of this week was of new conscripts — men who have either been willing, or simply unable to dodge the war — boarding military planes.

Many of the reservists getting summons this week have never fought in a war, let alone one that has already put Russia's hardened fighters on the backfoot.  

Ukraine's soldiers may be outgunned and outmanned by Russia, but Ukrainian Special Forces Senior Lieutenant Taras Berezovets, who led the counteroffensive in one part of the Kharkiv region, told Patta that his men are more nimble, and they have a vital advantage: technology.

Satellite communication devices provided to Ukraine by its Western backers have been used by the country's troops to communicate anywhere, anytime, and without being easily detected.  

It has given them a modern warfare edge over the invading forces.

Berezovets said the technology had "never been seen before" on the battlefields of Russia's war on his country, and "it played one of the key roles in the battle for Kharkiv region."

It was "one of the reasons why Russians lost, because they are completely outdated," he told Patta. 

But Ukraine's leaders and its troops know the war is still far from over. It could, in fact, be about to escalate.

On Friday, the de-facto administrations in four Ukrainian regions still occupied by Russia — Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — began holding referendums, asking residents if they want their hometowns to become part of Russia.

Russia Ukraine War Referendum Explainer
A military vehicle drives along a street with a billboard that reads: "With Russia forever, September 27," prior to a referendum in the Luhansk People's Republic, which is controlled by Russia-backed separatists, in eastern Ukraine. AP

The voting staged by Russia in the occupied territories is certain to go Moscow's way, and the results will give Putin an excuse to unilaterally annex the regions, just like he did with Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Virtually no nations have recognized that land grab as legitimate under international law in the ensuing eight years, and virtually no nations are likely to recognize the new land grab Russia is orchestrating this week as legitimate, either. Speaking Thursday at the United Nations, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken ridiculed the votes as "sham referenda."

But once they've taken place, it's expected that Putin will quickly declare the four Ukrainian regions Russian territory, and he could use that as a pretext to claim that Ukraine's forces, as they battle to reclaim occupied ground, are attacking Russia.

William Taylor, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, weighs in on Putin troop mobilization 08:06

The Russian president, when he announced his partial military mobilization earlier this week, said he was prepared to resort to more deadly weapons in his arsenal, which includes nuclear weapons that could be used in local or regional tactical strikes.

"Our country also has various means of destruction," Putin threatened. "And when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal. It's not a bluff."

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