KYIV: The Kremlin said on Monday no decision had been taken on whether to seal Russia's borders to stop an exodus of military-aged men fleeing the country, after days of chaotic scenes during its first military mobilisation since World War Two.
Asked about the prospect of the border being shut, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: "I don't know anything about this. At the moment, no decisions have been taken on this."
Reports that Russia might close the frontier have contributed to turmoil since President Vladimir Putin gave the order last week to call up hundreds of thousands of reservists in the biggest escalation yet of the seven-month Ukraine war.
Flights out of Russia have sold out and cars have piled up at border checkpoints, with reports of a 48-hour queue at the sole road border to Georgia, the rare pro-Western neighbour that allows Russian citizens to enter without a visa.
A senior Russian lawmaker from the ruling party said men of fighting age should not be allowed to travel abroad.
"Everyone who is of conscription age should be banned from travelling abroad in the current situation," Sergei Tsekov, who represents Russian-annexed Crimea in Russia's upper house of parliament, told RIA news agency.
Two exiled news sites - Meduza and Novaya Gazeta Europe - both reported that the authorities were planning to ban men from leaving, citing unidentified officials.
The mobilisation was accompanied by an announcement by Putin that Moscow would stage votes to annex four Ukrainian provinces occupied by its forces. The West calls the votes, due to conclude on Tuesday, a sham pretext to seize territory captured by force.
The mobilisation has led to the first sustained protests in Russia since the war began, with one monitoring group estimating at least 2,000 people have been arrested so far. All public criticism of the "special military operation" is banned.
The mobilisation has also seen the first sustained criticism of the authorities within state-controlled media since the war began, with pro-Kremlin commentators denouncing officials for calling up people too old to fight or otherwise ineligible.
Peskov acknowledged that some call-up notices had been issued in error, saying mistakes were being corrected by regional governors and the ministry of defence.
Russia counts millions of former conscripts as official reservists. The authorities have not spelled out precisely who is due to be called up - that part of Putin's order is classified - but have said they will draft 300,000 people, mostly with recent military experience.
Britain's Ministry of Defence said on Monday "many tens of thousands" of draftees had already received papers. They were expected to be sent swiftly to the frontline where they were "likely to suffer a high attrition rate", it said.
"The lack of military trainers, and the haste with which Russia has started the mobilisation, suggests that many of the drafted troops will deploy to the front line with minimal relevant preparation," it said.
Images circulating on the internet have shown clashes between crowds and police, particularly in areas where ethnic minorities predominate, such as mainly Muslim Dagestan in the south and Buryatia, home to Mongol Buddhists, in Siberia.
Putin accompanied last week's announcement of the annexation referendums and the mobilisation with a barely veiled threat to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia's new territorial claims.
That threat was repeated and made more explicit over the weekend by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, where he said Russia would defend any territory it annexes using any weapons in its arsenal.
U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Sunday the United States would respond "decisively" to any Russian use of nuclear weapons, without elaborating. He said Washington had privately told Moscow "exactly what that would mean".
Asked about Sullivan's comments, Kremlin spokesman Peskov said: "There are channels for dialogue at the proper level, but they are of a very sporadic nature. At least they allow for the exchange of some emergency messages about each other's positions."
The annexation votes are being held in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces in Ukraine's south and Luhansk and Donetsk provinces in the east, around 15% percent of Ukraine's area, equivalent to the size of Portugal.
None of those provinces is now fully under Moscow's control and fighting has been underway along the entire front line, with Ukrainian forces reporting more advances since they routed Russian troops in a fifth province, Kharkiv, earlier this month.
The exiled mayor of Russian-controlled Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhia region accused Russia of forcibly enlisting Ukrainian men in occupied areas into its armed forces.
"Today the situation is critical: our residents are scared, our residents are panicking, they don’t know what will happen tomorrow and when they will actually take our people away for enlisting," Mayor Ivan Fedorov said.
He denounced the referendum as "a fake and a farce".
"The voting takes place in front of assault rifles, men with weapons... People are grabbed right on the street and are forced to vote not only for themselves but for their whole families," he said via videolink from an undisclosed location.
The Ukrainian governor of Luhansk said Russian-backed officials were carrying ballot boxes from door to door, accompanied by security officials. Residents' names were taken down if they failed to vote as demanded, Serhiy Gaidai said.
Even traditional Russian allies such as Serbia and Kazakhstan have said they will not recognise the annexation votes. Moscow says voting is voluntary and turnout is high. When it held a referendum in Crimea after seizing that peninsula in 2014, it declared 97% of people had voted for annexation.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy met his security chiefs on Monday to plan ways to counteract Russia's use of "new types of weapons" after Moscow stepped up attacks in the Odesa region using Iranian combat drones.
Russia carried out at least five attacks on targets in the region using Shahed-136 drones in the last few days, Serhiy Bratchuk, spokesperson for Odesa's regional administration, told a news briefing. One of the attacks hit an undisclosed military target in the southern region in the early hours of Monday, he said.