Last September, President Vladimir V. Putin ordered the mobilization of 300,000 men to bolster sagging Russian defenses in Ukraine. At the time, the hordes of men who fled Russia to avoid conscription attracted the most attention. Yet hundreds of thousands of Russians — factory laborers and electricians, medical orderlies and basketball players, tractor drivers and school workers — went off to war.
The promise of payouts of $3,000 or $4,000 a month proved a huge incentive, along with appeals to machismo and the defense of the motherland. “What am I, not a man?” Pvt. Ivan A. Ovlashenko told his sister and his former wife. “I need to protect my country, my daughter.”
In lengthy interviews, the women said they were surprised how Mr. Ovlashenko, largely apolitical to this point, suddenly began parroting the government’s far-fetched talking point about the West planning to use Ukraine as a staging ground to attack Russia. If he did not fight in Ukraine, he said, he would have to battle the enemy on the streets of Bataysk, his hometown, a railroad hub just outside the southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don.
The mobilization shifted the calculus of the war. It was no longer some distant “military operation,” as the Kremlin still calls it, fought by contract soldiers, mercenaries and Ukrainian separatists press-ganged into service. Suddenly, ordinary Russians were thrust into the trenches.
Soon after he deployed to Ukraine last fall, Private Ovlashenko filmed a short video of himself wearing camouflage fatigues and an olive green fleece hatThe clip was meant to reassure relatives back in Russia that his sudden transition to frontline artilleryman was coming along just fine.
Until it wasn’t.