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What we know about the arson attacks in Russia

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Early in 2022, right after Russia invaded Ukraine, a wave of arson attacks hit military recruitment centers in Russia. Then last September, when Russia began mobilizing its reserve forces, came another round of attacks on draft offices in the country. And then this summer, again, Russians have been trying to set recruitment offices on fire. In all, since the war began, there have been something like 150 such acts of protest in Russia, a figure we know because the independent Russian media outlet Mediazona has been tracking them. And we are joined now by Mika Golubovsky, the English language editor for Mediazona. Welcome back.

MIKA GOLUBOVSKY: Hi. Thanks. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Let me start with this - the very obvious basic question of why. Why are people burning down recruitment offices in Russia?

GOLUBOVSKY: Well, you know, the motives are versatile. I mean, at first, it was an emotional reaction of people who were opposed to the war, and that's how they expressed their anti-war feelings. Then, after the first wave of mobilization, so-called partial mobilization started. Practical reasons were added because some people thought that by burning down recruitment offices, they would actually destroy the files. It will be harder to draft them to go and fight the war in Ukraine. There were financial motivations. And the last huge spike, which was just earlier in August, in the very start of August, it was really chaotic. And it looked more like a phone scamming. So people were lured by very, you know, elaborate schemes into actually preparing a Molotov cocktail and going to set the recruitment office on fire.

KELLY: A phone scam campaign organized by who?

GOLUBOVSKY: That is not completely clear. I mean, there are various hypotheses on this part. It could be Russian secret services in some cases. It could be anti-war activists. It could be Ukrainian secret services, perhaps, but that we don't know for sure. We do know that the FSB, Russian Secret Service and Russian police are prone to framing people by various and elaborate ways, and it could be one of those.

KELLY: So you're telling me this could actually be Russian security services paying people to attack Russian military recruitment offices in order to frame them so they can prosecute.

GOLUBOVSKY: Yeah, maybe not paying per se, but promising pay, yes. Yes. We know of a case in Yaroslavl where a young woman was - they're now charging her with attempted arson, although she didn't actually do anything. And provocation by the security forces seems - looks like very, very plausible in this case. And I'm pretty sure it's not the only one.

KELLY: Does the Kremlin acknowledge these attacks? Do they comment on them at all?

GOLUBOVSKY: I mean, they comment on each individual attack. Not the Kremlin, but, like, local authorities or security forces - they do comment on it. But no one acknowledges this to be, like, a movement or anything like that because, you know, the Kremlin's narrative is that all Russians support the so-called special military operation, support the war. And acknowledging just the sheer amount of it would raise a lot of questions about people's, you know, feelings about what was happening.

KELLY: I want people to know, Mika, that you are able to speak freely with us today because you are not in Russia. You're in...

GOLUBOVSKY: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Lithuania. Is your site - is Mediazona is still blocked in Russia?

GOLUBOVSKY: Yeah. It's constantly being blocked. I mean, the - our mirror sites are constantly being blocked. I think it's - we have over 180 mirror sites now. But people do get access to our reporting in Russia on social media, on Telegram, on mirror sites and that kind of - with VPNs and that kind of stuff.

KELLY: Do you still have staff reporting in Russia?

GOLUBOVSKY: Some, yes. But we definitely wouldn't want to disclose their names, you know, because it's really - it's dangerous.

KELLY: Understood. That's Mika Golubovsky, English language editor for the independent Russian media outlet Mediazona, speaking to us today from Vilnius, Lithuania. Mika, thank you.

GOLUBOVSKY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.