By Geoffrey Smith
Investing.com -- The Kremlin pushed back against a report claiming that the mobilization measures announced on Wednesday are much more ambitious than President Vladimir Putin admitted.
The news site Novaya Gazeta quoted an unnamed official in the presidential administration as saying that the government had kept classified a clause in the decree ordering the 'partial mobilization', which indicated that it is looking to call up 1 million men to bolster its flagging campaign in Ukraine.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had said on Thursday that the draft target was only 300,000, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stuck to that line when asked about Novaya Gazeta's report on Thursday, telling Interfax that the report is "a lie."
If true, the report would drastically raise the domestic political stakes for Putin, who has tried to shield the general population from the consequences of what he calls a "Special Military Operation" so far.
Putin's 'partial mobilization' announcement was met with a wave of protests across Russian cities on Wednesday, at which over 1,400 arrests were made, according to the non-government organization OVD-Info. The move also appeared to trigger a wave of efforts by fighting-age men to escape the draft any way they could, with prices for flights out of Russia skyrocketing and unverified social media footage purporting to show long lines of cars trying to cross Russia's borders with its neighbors.
However, Finland's government said on Thursday that there were no such scenes at its border crossing with Russia and that the social media clips were not current and had been taken out of context.
"The reaction of Russians to mobilization has turned out very differently from what the Kremlin expected," Leonid Nevzlin, a former business colleague of exiled oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky, said via Twitter.
Nevzlin, who fled Russia when Khodorkovsky was arrested and their shares in the Yukos oil company were confiscated in 2003, said there was "no happiness on the faces at the prospect of dying in the interests of Putin's mafia."
Elsewhere on Thursday, Russia agreed to a major exchange of prisoners of war with Ukraine, returning over 200 former defenders of the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol. Ukraine returned 55 captives to Russia, including former Presidential adviser Viktor Medvedchuk, who has been charged in Ukraine with treason. Putin is the godfather of Medvedchuk's youngest daughter.
The diplomatic pressure on Russia increased, meanwhile, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres thundered against the "catalog of cruelty" in Ukraine's war as he opened a UN Security Council meeting.
Without naming Russia explicitly, Guterres said reports from the UN's rights body show "a catalog of cruelty — summary executions, sexual violence, torture and other inhumane and degrading treatment against civilians and prisoners of war."
"Perpetrators must be held to account in fair and independent judicial proceedings," he added. "Victims and their families have a right to justice, remedy and reparation."