Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday announced the partial mobilization of military reservists, a significant escalation of his war in Ukraine after battlefield setbacks left the Kremlin facing growing pressure to act.
In a rare national address, Putin also backed plans for Russia to annex occupied areas of southern and eastern Ukraine, and appeared to threaten nuclear retaliation if Kyiv continues its efforts to reclaim that land.
The announcement came just a day after four Russian-controlled areas announced they would stage votes this week on breaking away from Ukraine and joining Russia, in a plan Kyiv and its Western allies dismissed as a desperate “sham” aimed at deterring a successful counteroffensive by Ukrainian troops.
Vowing that Russia would use all the means at its disposal to protect what it considers its territory, Putin accused the West of nuclear blackmail and warned: “This is not a bluff.”
Speaking after him, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said an initial 300,000 reservists would be called up.
Only those with relevant combat and service experience will be mobilized, he said. Another clause in the decree, which came into effect immediately, prevents most professional soldiers from terminating their contracts and leaving service until the partial mobilization is no longer in place.
President Joe Biden excoriated Moscow on Wednesday, telling world leaders in a speech at the United Nations General Assembly that Putin’s war is “about extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist.”
“If nations can pursue their imperial ambitions without consequences, then we put at risk everything this very institution stands for — everything,” Biden said, pledging that the U.S. would continue to stand with “courageous Ukrainian soldiers.”
Washington said Putin’s escalation was an expected step that showed his military campaign was failing.
Bridget Brink, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said in response: “Sham referenda and mobilization are signs of weakness, of Russian failure.”
“The United States will never recognize Russia’s claim to purportedly annexed Ukrainian territory, and we will continue to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes,” she said.
The Pentagon characterized Putin’s latest move as a sign that his military campaign is flailing.
“Like Russia’s planned sham referenda to annex territory in Ukraine, the announcement and associated threats are another sign that Russia is struggling to salvage its illegal occupation of Ukraine,” Defense Department spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder said in a statement.
“Russian forces in Ukraine continue to have significant issues with sustaining troop morale, operations, and logistics — compounded by Ukraine’s recent progress in its ongoing counteroffensives,” Ryder added.
The new deployments could include Russian fighters from major cities, a move that might undermine Putin’s domestic support if thousands of young people wind up leaving for Ukraine, a U.S. defense official and a U.S. official told NBC News.
Four U.S. officials said that Putin’s apparent threat of nuclear retaliation was “irresponsible,” confirming that there has been no change in Russia’s nuclear or chemical capabilities.
Putin has resisted calls from nationalist supporters and pro-military bloggers for a general mobilization since launching his full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.
On Wednesday, he stopped short of that step — which could have significantly boosted his ailing forces, but would likely take time and could also have proven unpopular with a public the Kremlin has sought to insulate from the effects of the war.
It remains to be seen whether the partial mobilization will spare him those same concerns.
The sudden flurry of activity signaled that the Kremlin intends to not just dig in, but also ramp up its efforts in a conflict that has dragged on for nearly seven months and recently tilted away from its forces. Its public backers have delighted in the prospect of an “all-out war” and a new confrontation with the West.
Russian-backed separatist officials in the eastern areas of Luhansk and Donetsk, as well as the southern Kherson region and the partially occupied Zaporizhzhia, announced Tuesday that they would hold votes on formally joining Russia over four days starting Friday. It wasn’t clear if the proposed annexation would cover the entire territory of the provinces or only the areas currently occupied by Russian forces.