(Reuters) – Some draft-age Russians rushed to the borders on Thursday to escape their country’s biggest conscription drive since World War Two, as world powers rounded on Moscow at the United Nations, accusing it of escalating the conflict in Ukraine.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, responded with defiance, defending Moscow’s record and accusing Kyiv and its Western allies of threatening his country, before walking out at the end of his speech to the Security Council.
The diplomatic confrontations came a day after President Vladimir Putin launched a new mobilisation campaign for the seven-month-old war that has already killed thousands, displaced millions, pulverised cities and damaged the global economy.
He also effectively announced plans to annex four Ukrainian provinces – saying Moscow would assist with referendums that are due to start on Friday on joining them to Russia – and threatened to use nuclear weapons.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council that talk of a nuclear conflict was “totally unacceptable” and said any move to annex territory would break international law.
“The very international order we’ve gathered here to uphold is being shredded before our eyes,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the gathering. “We can’t let President Putin get away with it.”
In his speech, Lavrov accused Kyiv of “brazenly trampling” the rights of Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine.
“I can assure you that we will never accept this,” he said. “Everything I’ve said today simply confirms that the decision to conduct the special military operation was inevitable.”
It was at least the Security Council’s 20th meeting on Ukraine this year. The body has been unable to take any meaningful action because Russia is a permanent veto-wielding member along with the United States, France, Britain and China.
Surveys in Russia have suggested widespread domestic backing for Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine – but mass conscription may be a risky move for Putin after past Kremlin promises it would not happen and a string of battlefield failures in Ukraine.
“Every normal person is (concerned),” said one man, identifying himself only as Sergey, disembarking in Belgrade after a flight from Moscow. “It is OK to be afraid of the war.”
Anti-war protests in 38 Russian cities saw more than 1,300 people arrested on Wednesday, a monitoring group said. Some of the detainees had been ordered to report to enlistment offices on Thursday, the first full day of conscription, independent news outlets said. More rallies are planned for the weekend.
Russia said reports of a mass exodus were exaggerated.
Russian news agencies meanwhile reported on Thursday that 10,000 people had volunteered to fight even before their call-up papers had arrived, citing the Russian General Staff.
Putin’s defence minister has said the mobilisation is intended to enlist about 300,000 men.
Prices for air tickets from Moscow soared above $5,000 for one-way flights to the nearest foreign locations, with most sold out for coming days. Traffic also surged at border crossings with Finland and Georgia.
One Russian man arriving at Istanbul Airport said he left partly over the Kremlin’s decision. “It can lead to lots of problems for lots of Russians,” said Alex, grabbing his suitcase at a baggage carousel.
A truck driver who crossed the Russian-Kazakh border near the Kazakh city of Oral said he saw unusually heavy traffic from the Russian side. A tourism industry source said there was desperation as people sought to find air tickets out of Russia.
National airline Aeroflot said it would refund people unable to fly as planned because they had received a call-up.
On the ground, explosions shook southeastern Ukraine on the eve of the referendums planned there by pro-Moscow separatists – votes that Kyiv and its allies have called a sham.
Russia’s military fired nine missiles on the city of Zaporizhzhia, hitting a hotel and a power station, regional governor Oleksandr Starukh said. At least one person died with others trapped under rubble, he added. Zaporizhzhia is about 50 km (30 miles) from the nuclear plant of the same name.
In the Russian-held southern city of Melitopol, also in the Zaporizhzhia region, a blast hit a crowded market. The city’s exiled mayor said it had killed three soldiers and was staged by occupying forces to accuse Ukraine of terrorism. A member of the Russian-installed local administration accused Ukrainian special services of trying to cause chaos on the eve of voting.
In further violence, Russian-installed separatists said at least six civilians had been killed and six more injured in a missile strike on a market in central Donetsk.
Bodies lay on the street next to a wrecked bus surrounded by debris and twisted metal. A firefighter hugged a sobbing woman whose daughter had been killed inside the vehicle.
A Reuters reporter saw five dead people in the separatist-controlled city, including a teenager, and several wounded.
Putin says Russia is carrying out a “special military operation” to demilitarise Ukraine, rid it of dangerous nationalists and defend Moscow from transatlantic alliance NATO.
Kyiv and the West call Russia’s actions an unprovoked, imperialist move to reconquer a country that shook off Russian domination with the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union.
Moscow does not fully control any of the four regions it is apparently seeking to annex, with only around 60% of Donetsk and 66% of Zaporizhzhia regions held by its forces.
Ukraine extended its hold on recaptured northeastern territory earlier this week as troops marched farther into areas abandoned by Russia, paving the way for a potential assault on occupation forces in the Donbas industrial heartland.
(Additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade and Reuters bureaus; writing by Michael Perry, Andrew Cawthorne and Andrew Heavens; Editing by Shri Navaratnam, Mark Heinrich and Catherine Evans)