KYIV, Ukraine (Dispatches) — Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization of reservists Wednesday in the first call-up in Russia since World War II.
In his seven-minute televised address to the nation, Putin also warned the West he isn’t bluffing over using everything at his disposal to protect Russia — an apparent reference to his nuclear arsenal. He has previously told the West not to back Russia against the wall and has rebuked NATO countries for supplying weapons to Ukraine.
The total number of reservists to be called up could be as high as 300,000, officials said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, asked what had changed since he and others previously said no mobilization was planned, said Russia is effectively fighting against NATO because the alliance’s members have been supplying weapons to Kyiv.
The partial mobilization order came a day after Russian-controlled regions in eastern and southern Ukraine announced plans to hold votes on becoming integral parts of Russia — a move that could eventually allow Moscow to escalate the war on legal grounds. The referendums will start Friday in the Luhansk, Kherson and partly Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions.
The balloting is all but certain to go Moscow’s way. Foreign leaders have described the votes as illegitimate and nonbinding. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said they were a “sham” and “noise” to distract public attention.
Putin’s speech is “definitely a sign that he’s struggling, and we know that,” U.S. national security council spokesperson John Kirby claimed.
Added White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on MSNBC: “It’s all because Russia is losing ground on the battlefield.”
Only those with relevant combat and service experience will be mobilized, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said. He added about 25 million people fit this criteria but only around 1% of them will be mobilized.
Another key clause in the decree prevents most professional soldiers from terminating their contracts and leaving service until the partial mobilization is no longer in place.
A spokesman for Zelensky called the mobilization a “big tragedy” for the Russian people.
“This is a recognition of the incapacity of the Russian professional army, which has failed in all its tasks,” Sergii Nikiforov.
The war in Ukraine, which has killed thousands of people, has driven up food prices worldwide and caused energy costs to soar. It has also brought fears of a potential nuclear catastrophe at Europe’s largest nuclear plant in Ukraine’s now Russia-occupied southeast.
In his address, which was far shorter than previous speeches about the Ukraine war, Putin accused the West of engaging in “nuclear blackmail” and noted “statements of some high-ranking representatives of the leading NATO states about the possibility of using nuclear weapons of mass destruction against Russia.”
“To those who allow themselves such statements regarding Russia, I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction ... and when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal,” Putin said, adding: “It’s not a bluff.”
Putin said he has already signed the decree for partial mobilization, which starts immediately, and stressed its limited scale.
“We are talking about partial mobilization, that is, only citizens who are currently in the reserve will be subject to conscription, and above all, those who served in the armed forces who have a certain military specialty and relevant experience,” Putin said.
Shoigu said 5,937 Russian soldiers have died in the conflict, far lower than Western estimates of tens of thousands.