The onset of autumnal weather, with rains making fields too muddy for tanks, is beginning to cloud Ukraine‘s efforts to take back more Russian-held territory before winter freezes the battlefields, a Washington-based think tank said Sunday.
Russia, meanwhile, pressed on with its call-up of hundreds of thousands of men to throw into the seven-month war, seeking to reverse its recent losses. Without control of the skies over Ukraine, Russia is also making increasing use of suicide drones, with more strikes reported Sunday in the Black Sea port city of Odesa.
The Russian mobilization — its first such call-up since World War II — is sparking protests in Russia, with fresh demonstrations Sunday. In Dagestan, one of Russia’s poorer regions in the North Caucasus, police fired warning shots to try to disperse more than 100 people who blocked a highway while protesting the call-up, Russian media reported.
It is also opening splits in Europe about whether fighting-age Russian men fleeing in droves should be welcomed or turned away.
For Ukrainian and Russian military planners, the clock is ticking, with the approach of winter expected to make fighting more complicated. Already, rainy weather is bringing muddy conditions that are starting to limit the mobility of tanks and other heavy weaponry, according to the Institute for the Study of War.
But the think tank said Ukrainian forces are still gaining ground in their counteroffensive, launched in late August, that has spectacularly rolled back the Russian occupation across large areas of the northeast and which also prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new drive for reinforcements.
The partial mobilization has triggered an exodus of men seeking to avoid the draft — and sharp differences of opinion in Europe in recent days about how to deal with them.
Lithuania, a European Union member-country that borders Kaliningrad, a Russian Baltic Sea exclave, said it won’t grant them asylum. “Russians should stay and fight. Against Putin,” Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis tweeted.
His counterpart in Latvia, also an EU member and bordering Russia, said the exodus poses “considerable security risks” for the 27-nation bloc and that those fleeing can’t be considered conscientious objectors against the invasion.
Many “were fine with killing Ukrainians, they did not protest then,” the Latvian foreign minister, Edgars Rinkevics, tweeted. He added that they have “plenty of countries outside EU to go.”
Finland also said it intends to “significantly restrict” entry to Russians entering the EU through its border with Russia. A Finnish opposition leader, Petteri Orpo, also said fleeing Russian military reservists are an “obvious” security risk and “we must put our national security first.”
Officials in other EU nations, however, say Europe has a duty to help, and fear that turning away Russians could play into Putin’s hands, feeding his narrative that the West has always hated Russians and that the war is being waged to safeguard their country against Western hostility.
“Closing our frontiers would fit neither with our values nor our interests,” a 40-strong group of senators in France said in a statement. They urged the EU to grant refugee status to Russians fleeing mobilization and said turning them away would be “a mistake by Europe in the war of communication and influence that is playing out.”
The mobilization is also running hand-in-hand with Kremlin-orchestrated votes in four occupied regions of Ukraine that could pave the way for their imminent annexation by Russia.
Ukraine and its Western allies say the referendums in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south and the eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions have no legal force. The votes are set to wrap up Tuesday but are being dismissed in Ukraine and the West as a sham, with footage showing armed Russian troops going door to door to pressure Ukrainians into voting.
Ukraine’s Reintegration Ministry said Russia has brought people from Belarus, Brazil, Egypt, South Africa, Syria, Togo, Uruguay and Venezuela to act as supposed outside observers. The ministry warned that they “will be punished,” without specifying how.
In cities across Russia, police have arrested hundreds of protesters against the mobilization order. Women opposed to the call-up protested Sunday in the Siberian city of Yakutsk. Videos shared by local media showed a crowd of a few hundred people, mostly women, holding hands and marching in a circle around a group of police. Police later dragged some away or forced them into police vans. News website SakhaDay said the women chanted pacifist slogans and songs.
At least 2,000 people have been arrested in recent days for similar demonstrations around the country. Many of those taken away immediately received call-up summons.
Other Russians are reporting for duty. Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu have said the order applies to reservists who recently served or have special skills, but almost every man is considered a reservist until age 65 and Putin’s decree kept the door open for a broader call-up.
The Kremlin said its initial aim is to add about 300,000 troops to its forces in Ukraine, struggling with equipment losses, mounting casualties and weakening morale. The mobilization marks a sharp shift from Putin’s previous efforts to portray the war as a limited military operation that wouldn’t interfere with most Russians’ lives.