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Mobilization, school shooting stir Russians into war mood

Thousands of Russians are signing up for the front lines in Ukraine. A school massacre, said to be perpetrated by a man in a T-shirt with a swastika, likely will add to patriotic sentiments.

(CN) — The war in Ukraine may be turning into a unifying cause for Russia and its 142 million inhabitants with signs that thousands of Russian men are signing up for combat duty on the front lines following a mobilization order issued by Russian President Vladimir Putin last week.

Russians were given further reason on Monday to back the war against Kyiv and NATO and see it as a struggle against neo-Nazis after a 34-year-old man wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with a swastika entered a school in Izhevsk, a city near the Ural Mountains, and killed 11 children before committing suicide. In all, at least 15 people were killed and 22 other children and adults were wounded in the attack, Russian media reported. Russia has suffered a spate of school shootings in recent years.

The details and motives of the shooting remained largely unclear, but Russian sources were already making links to Ukrainian nationalist and terrorist groups. Putin denounced it as an “inhuman terrorist attack” by someone who “apparently belongs to a neo-fascist group.”

The gunman was identified as Artyom Kazantsev, a former graduate of the school. Reportedly, he was a patient at a psychiatric clinic.

In launching the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has sought to justify his war as a fight against “Nazis” who've taken over the government in Kyiv and repressed Ukraine's Russian populations.

Such rhetoric about Nazis carries a lot of emotional weight in Russia. The Soviet Union lost more than 10 million troops during World War II fighting Nazi Germany and about 14 million civilians were killed.

Ukraine's nationalist movement, which began in the 19th century in opposition to oppression of the Ukrainian language and culture under the Russian Empire, sided with Nazi Germany during the war and fought against Soviet troops in a bid to create an independent nation. In recent years, Ukraine has made nationalist leaders, including Nazi collaborator and war criminal Stepan Bandera, into heroes, further stoking Russian anger.

Police and paramedics work at the scene of a shooting at school No. 88 in Izhevsk, Russia, on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022. (AP Photo)

Ukrainian nationalists – aided by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency – continued a failed guerrilla war against the Soviets into the 1950s. Soviet dictator Stalin used brutal force against Ukrainian nationalists and sent tens of thousands of Ukrainians into exile in Siberia and Kazakhstan.

There is lots of evidence that neo-Nazi groups played important roles in violent protests that led to the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, a democratically elected pro-Russian Ukrainian president, in February 2014, during the so-called “Revolution of Dignity” or “Maidan Revolution.”

Those events, described by many scholars as either a coup d'etat or a popular uprising against a kleptocratic bully, precipitated Ukraine into chaos and a state similar to a civil war that saw pro-Western Maidan supporters battling pro-Russian anti-Maidan opponents.

The crisis turned catastrophic – and global – after Russian troops based in Crimea, where Moscow has its Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol, seized the peninsula in a mostly bloodless takeover from Ukrainian forces.

Crimea, where a majority of the population is ethnic Russian, was annexed by the Kremlin into the Russian Federation following a referendum deemed a sham by most of the world.

Similar referendums are taking place now in four Ukrainian regions mostly under the control of Russian troops. The referendums will end on Tuesday.

Putin is expected to announce later this week that inhabitants in the four oblasts, as regions are called in Ukraine and Russia, have voted to join Russia.

Such an annexation move would exacerbate even further a war that is spiraling out of control as the West vows to defeat Russia and ensure Ukraine recaptures all of the territory it has lost in the seven months of fighting since Putin ordered 200,000 troops to invade on Feb. 24. Western weapons and financial aid continue to pour into Ukraine, a nation of some 42 million people that has itself become unified by Russia's invasion and war.

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The referendums are being held in conditions of war with soldiers reportedly going door-to-door with ballots, troops themselves casting votes even as they fight on the front lines, some voting locations remaining undisclosed due to fear of attacks, bombs falling on cities and towns where voting is underway and a few incidents of terrorist attacks against referendum workers.

Still, Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian authorities are claiming the referendums a success.

In Russia, meanwhile, Putin's decision to order a mobilization of 300,000 reservists has stirred up both tensions and patriotic feelings.

Ukraine ordered a full mobilization of its men of military age at the outset of the war and has barred them from leaving the country. Ukraine has placed a larger force than Russia's on the battlefields of eastern and southern Ukraine, but that could change if Russia's mobilization is a success.

Western media have focused on signs of unrest caused by the mobilization and reported on long lines of cars trying to leave Russia for Georgia, packed flights out of Moscow and protests breaking out in Dagestan, a mostly Muslim region in the North Caucasus. Videos and reports suggest police and government agents are trying to suppress the protests with gunshots and violence.

Russia has tightened border controls to make sure military age men do not leave the country, according to news reports.

There have also been anti-war protests in Russian cities, leading to hundreds of arrests, and stories of young men being forced to enlist with at least one man who reportedly lit himself on fire to protest. On Monday, reports and video also showed a shooting inside a troop registration office in the Far Eastern region of Irkutsk.

Western news reports also have painted a picture where Russia is recruiting inexperienced, old and fragile men in what may end up a failed bid to boost the country's demoralized front line troops.

Western military experts claim that Putin's mobilization drive will not turn the tide of the war, which has moved in Kyiv's favor following a successful counteroffensive that saw Ukrainian forces drive Russian troops out of the Kharkiv region.

A Ukrainian serviceman from Dnipro-1 regiment walks past a damaged building in the retaken village of Shchurove, Ukraine, on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

“Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to overcome fundamental structural challenges in attempting to mobilize large numbers of Russians to continue his war in Ukraine,” the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington military think tank, said in its latest report.

The think tank said Russia will find new troops but at “high domestic social and political costs” and that they will be unlikely “to add substantially to the Russian military’s net combat power in 2022.”

“Putin will have to fix basic flaws in the Russian military personnel and equipment systems if mobilization is to have any significant impact even in the longer term,” it added. “His actions thus far suggest that he is far more concerned with rushing bodies to the battlefield than with addressing these fundamental flaws.”

It is far from clear what Russia's military capacities are despite claims by Western experts that Moscow is running out of equipment, resources and seasoned fighters. On the battlefield, Russia continues to pound Ukrainian forces and its army, despite its shortcomings, remains a formidable and modernized threat.

Meanwhile, Russian media is providing videos and evidence showing strong support for mobilization in many sections of Russian society.

Such evidence includes groups of men heading into registration offices, newly conscripted soldiers singing Russian songs to the sound of accordions as they travel on army buses to the front lines, Orthodox priests blessing lines of reservists, women kissing men who are heading off to war and towns holding emotional ceremonies for those enlisting. Also, some well-known sports figures and children of politicians have signed up to fight.

In recent days, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has issued video addresses to Russians urging them to stay home and not join a “criminal mobilization” meant to “prolong the suffering of people in Ukraine and to further destabilize the world.” He has spoken Russian in the videos.

He is trying to sow doubt among Russians by saying that the Kremlin was enlisting a disproportionate number of men from minority groups. There is evidence, as reported by the BBC, that far more men from Dagestan, for example, have been killed in Ukraine than from Moscow.

“This is another element of Russia's policy of genocide, another reason for the immediate and tough reaction of the whole world,” he charged. “This is a deliberate imperial policy. This is a blow to the peoples of, for example, Dagestan and the entire Caucasus, to the indigenous peoples of Siberia and other territories.”

Both sides have accused each other of committing genocide, claims that many experts do not agree with. Regardless, there is evidence that the war's brutality is sowing deep hatred between ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians.

“We see that people, in particular, in Dagestan, began to fight for their lives,” Zelenskyy said. “Why should their husbands, brothers, sons die in this war? In a war that one man wants. In a war against our people, on our land.... Fight to ensure that your children are not sent to die.”

He added: “Because if you come to take the lives of our children – I will tell you as a father – we will not let you go alive. I want to emphasize once again: there is a way out. Do not submit to criminal mobilization. Flee. Or surrender to Ukrainian captivity at the first opportunity.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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