President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered Russia’s first mobilisation since World War Two, warning the West that if it continued what he called its “nuclear blackmail” that Moscow would respond with the might of all its vast arsenal.
“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will use all available means to protect our people – this is not a bluff,” Putin said in a televised address to the nation, adding Russia had “lots of weapons to reply”.
Russia’s defence minister said the partial mobilisation will see 300,000 reservists called and up would apply to those with previous military experience.
Putin’s partial mobilisation significantly escalates the conflict over Ukraine and comes as Russia battles a Ukrainian counter-offensive that has forced its troops to retreat and surrender some occupied territory.
“Clearly it’s something that we should take very seriously because, you know, we’re not in control – I’m not sure he’s in control either, really. This is obviously an escalation,” British foreign office minister Gillian Keegan told Sky News.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said Russia’s mobilisation was a predictable step that would prove extremely unpopular and underscored that the war was not going according to Moscow’s plan.
Putin said the partial military mobilisation of its 2 million-strong military reservists was to defend Russia and its territories, arguing the West did not want peace in Ukraine.
He said Washington, London, Brussels were pushing Kyiv to “transfer military operations to our territory” with the aim of the “complete plunder our country”.
Ukraine’s military has sporadically struck targets inside Russia throughout the conflict, using long-range weapons supplied by the West.
“Nuclear blackmail has also been used,” Putin said, citing Ukraine’s Zaporozhzhia nuclear power plant, the biggest in Europe. Both Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of endangering the plant in the fighting.
He accused high-ranking officials of leading NATO nations of making statements about “the possibility and admissibility of using weapons of mass destruction against Russia – nuclear weapons”.
“To those who allow themselves such statements regarding Russia, 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.”
Putin restated his aim was to “liberate” east Ukraine’s Donbas industrial heartland region and that most people in the region did not want to return to what he called the “yoke” of Ukraine.
Ahead of Putin’s speech, world leaders meeting at the United Nations in New York denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and plans for four occupied regions to hold referendums in the coming days to joining Russia.
In the apparently coordinated move, pro-Russian figures announced referendums for September 23-27 in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces, representing around 15% of Ukrainian territory, or an area about the size of Hungary.
Russia already considers Luhansk and Donetsk, which together make up the Donbas region 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.
Russia now holds about 60% of Donetsk and had captured nearly all of Luhansk by July after slow advances during months of intense fighting.
Those gains are now under threat after Russian forces were driven from neighbouring Kharkiv province this month, losing control of their main supply lines for much of the Donetsk and Luhansk front lines.
“The Russians can do whatever they want. It will not change anything,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Tuesday in response to reporters’ questions at the United Nations where leaders were arriving for a General Assembly meeting likely to be dominated by the war in Ukraine.
In a tweet, he added: “Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say.”
If the referendum plan “wasn’t so tragic it would be funny,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters ahead of the U.N. assembly in New York.
Putin on February 24 ordered what he calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine to root out dangerous nationalists and “denazify” the country. The war has killed thousands, destroyed cities and sent millions fleeing their homes in the former Soviet republic.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Putin will only give up his “imperial ambitions” that risk destroying Ukraine and Russia if he recognises he cannot win the war.