( NYPost )
Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered that as many as 300,000 reservists be called up to fight in Ukraine and threatened to use nuclear weapons against the West, stressing that his words were “not a bluff.”
In a national address that was televised Wednesday morning, Putin warned that he would use all the means available to protect Russia’s territory, in what appeared to be a veiled reference to the country’s nuclear arsenal.
“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 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.” He didn’t identify who had made such comments.
British Foreign Minister Gillian Keegan told Sky News that Putin’s threats should be taken “very seriously” because they represent an escalation.
“It is chilling … It’s a serious threat, but one that has been made before,” she told the BBC in a separate interview.
In the Russian warmonger’s address, which was shorter than his previous speeches about the situation in Ukraine, Putin said he has already signed the decree for partial mobilization, which is due to start on Wednesday.
“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 have a certain military specialty and relevant experience,” Putin said.
It’s the first mobilization in Russia since World War II and comes amid humiliating battlefield losses for the Kremlin’s forces in recent weeks after Kyiv’s lightning counter-offensive that has reclaimed vast territories from the enemy.
The total number of Russian reservists to be called up could be as high as 300,000, officials said.
Even a partial mobilization is likely to increase dismay, or sow doubt, among Russians about the war in Ukraine.
Shortly after Putin’s address, Russian media reported a sharp spike in demand for plane tickets abroad amid an apparent scramble to leave despite exorbitant prices for flights.
Google Trends data showed an uptick in searches for Aviasales, which is Russia’s most popular website for purchasing flights.
Direct flights from Moscow to Istanbul in Turkey and Yerevan in Armenia, both destinations that allow Russians to enter without a visa, were sold out on Wednesday, according to Aviasales data.
The cheapest flights from Moscow to Dubai were costing more than $5,000 — about five times the average monthly wage in Russia.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who was asked what had changed since he and others previously said no mobilization was planned, argued that Russia is effectively fighting against a combined potential of NATO because the alliance’s members have been supplying weapons to Kyiv.
Only those with relevant combat and service experience will be mobilized, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said. He added that there are around 25 million people who fit the criteria, but only around 1% of them will be drafted to serve.
Another 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 Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the mobilization a “big tragedy” for the Russian people.
In a statement, Sergii Nikiforov said conscripts sent to the front line in Ukraine would face a similar fate as ill-prepared Russian forces who were repelled in an attack on Kyiv in the first days of the invasion last February.
“This is a recognition of the incapacity of the Russian professional army, which has failed in all its tasks,” Nikiforov said.
The mobilization is unlikely to bring any consequences on the battlefield for months because of a lack of training facilities and equipment.
The US ambassador to Ukraine, Bridget Brink, tweeted that the mobilization is a sign “of weakness, of Russian failure.”
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace echoed that assessment, describing Putin’s move as “an admission that his invasion is failing.”
Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said Putin’s announcement smacked of “an act of desperation.” He predicted that Russians will resist the mobilization through “passive sabotage.”
“People will evade this mobilization in every possible way, bribe their way out of this mobilization, leave the country,” Oreshkin said Wednesday.
The announcement won’t go down well with the general public, Oreshkin said, describing it as “a huge personal blow to Russian citizens, who until recently (took part in the hostilities) with pleasure, sitting on their couches, (watching) TV. And now the war has come into their home.”
The head of the Duma defense committee, Andrei Kartapolov, said there would be no additional restrictions on reservists leaving Russia based on this mobilization, according to Russian media reports. Kartapolov said he wanted to “calm” people about the mobilization.
The partial mobilization order came a day after Russian-controlled regions in eastern and southern Ukraine announced plans to hold referendums on becoming integral parts of Russia — a move that could set the stage for Moscow to escalate the war following Ukrainian successes.
The votes, which have been expected to take place since the first months of the war, will start Friday in the Luhansk, Kherson and partly Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions.
The ballots are all but certain to go Moscow’s way.
Foreign leaders have described the ballots as illegitimate and nonbinding. Zelensky said they were a “sham” and “noise” to distract public attention.
Ukraine’s swift counter-offensive launched this month has snatched the military initiative away from Russia, as well as capturing large areas the Russians once held. The swiftness of the counter-offensive saw Russian forces abandon armored vehicles and other weapons as they beat hasty retreats.
Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, also said 5,937 Russian soldiers have died in the Ukraine conflict, far lower than Western estimates that Russia has lost tens of thousands.
The Vesna opposition movement called for nationwide protests on Wednesday, saying, “Thousands of Russian men — our fathers, brothers and husbands — will be thrown into the meat grinder of the war. What will they be dying for? What will mothers and children be crying for?”
It was unclear how many would protest amid Russia’s overall suppression of opposition and harsh laws against discrediting soldiers and the military operation.
Putin’s announcement came against the backdrop of the UN General Assembly in New York, where Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 has been the target of broad international criticism that has kept up intense diplomatic pressure on Moscow.
Zelensky is due to address the gathering in a prerecorded address on Wednesday. Putin didn’t travel to New York.