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See footage of Bakhmut obtained from a Ukrainian armored vehicle
02:24 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

When Vladimir Putin tried to mobilize hundreds of thousands of citizens to fight in his invasion of Ukraine last September, chaos, fear and anger reverberated through Russia.

For many, those feelings returned on Wednesday after the Russian parliament approved a law that made the country’s conscription program more efficient, more modern – and harder to evade.

“We have been expecting the second mobilization wave for a long time now, and this is the beginning,” Irina, a 51-year-old psychologist whose son is of mobilization age, told CNN from Moscow. “These amendments have already had their effect on me, by contributing to a feeling of uncertainty and anxiety.”

The new bill – passed by lawmakers on Wednesday, and awaiting only Putin’s signature before it becomes law – is, according to the Kremlin, an unremarkable streamlining of Russia’s biannual conscription process.

It would allow for the electronic delivery of military call-up papers, in addition to traditional letters, and bans those liable for military service from traveling abroad. It also includes tough penalties for those who ignore a summons – barring them from getting a loan, moving into a new apartment, registering as self-employed and driving a vehicle.

But CNN spoke to a number of Russians who dismiss the Kremlin’s reassurances, and say the move lays the groundwork for another attempt to force Russians onto the battlefields in Ukraine.

“This is the second wave,” Irina said. “Of course, they have to feed this war with fresh meat all the time.

“During the first wave they used police raids to round up conscripts. People didn’t like that. So now they are trying to concoct something different,” she said.

Police officers detained scores of protesters after September's partial mobilization order.

“This may well be an attempt to avoid the full-scale manhunt they employed before, which caused so much panic,” added Artem, 25, who dodged the September mobilization despite receiving a call-up. “I am not at all convinced these measures will help to avoid a rampant mobilization like in autumn last year.”

But he is certain of one thing: if another attempt at mass mobilization arrives, he will not comply. “My relatives, not fit for army service, can drive my car if they take away my license,” he said. “I don’t own any real estate. And the traveling ban has more of a psychological effect on me than practical – or I would have left long ago.”

He is confident his friends and family would take a similar approach. “It will prompt them to take more measures to dodge. Some will leave, others – move to their country homes, still others – forge their documents,” he said. “Everyone will have to find some ways around this somehow.

“None of the people I know – my friends and aquaintances will go to conscription centers,” concurred Irina. “They will employ anything to avoid getting there,” she said.

“It’s better to be sent to prison than be killed.”

‘I don’t believe a word’

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that the new bill is meant only to “fix the mess” that followed September’s controversial partial mobilization order.

It was a rare admission of failure that reflected how damaging that initial effort was. The order was beset by issues, and prompted thousands of Russians to flee to the border.

Asked during a regular call with reporters if the Kremlin is concerned that the impending new law would trigger another wave of mass exodus of Russians, Peskov said: “Absolutely not. It has nothing to do with mobilization, it has to do with military registration.”

Billboards promoting the Russian recruitment effort are commonplace around Russian cities.

“I don’t believe a word of this,” Alexey, a 41-year-old lawyer from Moscow, told CNN. While he is not within the official age range for mobilization, he does not expect the Kremlin to stick to their own guidelines when calling up recruits.

“Now it will be much easier to mobilize me, given how digitalized life in Moscow has become,” he said.

Currently, conscription documents in Russia must be hand-delivered by the local military enlistment office or through an employer. The new bill makes an electronic summons – uploaded to a government portal called Gosuslugi – equal to the traditional method, and does not take into account whether it has been read.

Russia’s Defense Ministry routinely conscripts men for compulsory military service twice a year, in spring and autumn. The spring conscription this year will apply to 147,000 citizens aged between 18 and 27 and will take place from April 1 to July 15, according to an official document published by the government.

Officials say the changes are related to this process, which was ongoing in Russia before it invaded Ukraine last year. But the memories of September are felt intensely among young men and families around the country.

“I have no trust in today’s authorities in Russia. I fear for my son even more than about my own life,” said Alexey, whose son falls within the official age range for conscription.

Is another exodus possible?

The prospect of leaving Russia has been a realistic one for many who oppose the war, and who have avoided or fear a call-up.

“Should (the war) drag on and intensify, and if there is a real second wave of mobilization, then I think some will try to leave (Russia), of course,” said Olga, a 48-year-old woman who hopes her son, who is 16, will be admitted to technical college and therefore become exempt from mobilization.

“I feel very badly about this war. And same goes for all other wars and any deaths by force regardless of the cause,” she said. “I would prefer for wars to be fought only by professional military or volunteers.

But fleeing is a difficult proposition. Artem told CNN he is exploring the possibility, but sees few options and fears being unable to find work abroad.

“I do not rule out leaving Russia but I don’t see how, if they impose the ban on draft dodgers traveling abroad,” added Irina. “I don’t see a solution here.”

“And even if it were possible, finding work and accommodation abroad is not so simple. Many of those who had left in autumn last year had returned,” she said. “But, of course, I would feel much better had my son been living in another country. My daughter had left two years ago and I worry about her much less than I would, had she been here.”

Though the Kremlin has been quick to downplay the significance of the move, its provisions and timing are convenient for a military bogged down in stalemate in its ground campaign in eastern Ukraine, after months of grinding combat which has bled their manpower and weaponry.

Western officials last week told CNN they believe Russia has a problem generating “trained military manpower.”

“[Russia has] acknowledged that they needed 400,000 more troops and that’s not just for the conflict [in Ukraine], but also to fulfill new formations which are going to be put on the new border with NATO and Finland,” the officials said in a briefing on Wednesday, answering a question from CNN.