Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday called up 3,00,000 reservists to fight in Ukraine and backed a plan to annex parts of the country, hinting to the West he was prepared to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia.
It was Russia’s first such mobilisation since the Second World War and signified the biggest escalation of the Ukraine war since Moscow’s February 24 invasion.
It followed mounting casualties and battlefield setbacks for Russian forces, who have been driven from areas they had captured in northeast Ukraine in a counter-offensive this month and are bogged down in the south.
In an address to the Russian nation, Mr. Putin said: “If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will use all available means to protect our people --this is not a bluff”. Russia had “lots of weapons to reply”, he said.
Ukraine and its Western allies responded by saying the move showed Russia’s campaign in Ukraine was failing. The allies pledged further support for President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government.
Russia’s Defence Minister said the partial mobilisation would see 3,00,000 reservists with previous military experience called up.
Mr. Putin said the partial mobilisation of its 2 million-strong military reservists was to defend Russia and its territories. The West did not want peace in Ukraine, he said.
He accused Washington, London and Brussels of pushing Kyiv to “transfer military operations to our territory”. Ukraine has sporadically struck targets inside Russia throughout the conflict, using long-range weapons supplied by the West.
“Nuclear blackmail has also been used,” Mr. Putin said, citing Ukraine’s Zaporozhzhia nuclear power plant.
Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of endangering the plant in the fighting. Russia said on Wednesday a large-caliber shell had damaged a technical water pipe at the plant, which is occupied by Russian troops.
Mr. Putin also accused officials of NATO countries of making statements about “the possibility and admissibility of using weapons of mass destruction against Russia --nuclear weapons”.
“I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction, and in some components more modern than those of the NATO countries,” he said.
Mr. Putin restated his aim was to “liberate” the Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial heartland, and said most people there did not want to return to what he called the “yoke” of Ukraine.
In an apparently coordinated move, pro-Russian regional leaders on Tuesday announced referendums for September 23-27 in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces, representing around 15% of Ukrainian territory.
Russia already considers Luhansk and Donetsk, which together make up the Donbas region that Moscow partially occupied in 2014, to be independent states. Ukraine and the West consider all parts of Ukraine held by Russian forces to be illegally occupied.