Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the partial mobilization of his country’s military Wednesday, calling up reservists in a significant escalation of his war in Ukraine after battlefield setbacks left the Kremlin facing growing pressure to act.
In a rare national address, the Russian leader also backed plans for Russia to annex occupied areas of southern and eastern Ukraine, appearing to threaten nuclear retaliation if Kyiv continues its efforts to reclaim that land.
The speech came just a day after 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: “I am not bluffing.”
The Russian leader’s words came hours after he was widely expected to speak Tuesday night. It wasn’t clear why his speech was delayed.
Speaking after Putin, defense minister Sergei Shoigu said an initial 300,000 reservists would be called up.
Only Russian citizens who are currently in reserve and have previous military experience will be subject to mobilization, Putin said. Those called up will also undergo additional training, he added, with the mobilization starting immediately.
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.
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, the Russian leader 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 how the announcement of partial mobilization will be received by regular Russians.
The sudden flurry of activity signaled that the Kremlin intends to not just dig in but to 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.
Russia’s parliament also approved a bill to toughen punishments for a host of crimes, including desertion and surrender, if they are committed during periods of mobilization or martial law.
The swift developments came just a week after Ukraine successfully reclaimed swaths of territory in its northeast, in what many observers said could be a decisive shift in the conflict.
Kyiv’s military has been pressing to make further gains in Luhansk and Donetsk, which together form the industrial Donbas region that Moscow has made its primary goal since failing to seize the capital, Kyiv. And it has also been waging a simultaneous second counteroffensive in the south in an effort to wear down gathered Russian forces around the strategically important city of Kherson and the Black Sea coast.
The Kremlin has insisted that what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine is going according to plan, but military observers have said Russian forces are depleted and increasingly dispirited.
Under growing pressure, Putin has now acted — though it was unclear how the moves will have an immediate impact on the ground.
Kyiv has been boosted by Western-supplied weapons, including long-range rocket systems supplied by the U.S., leading voices on Russian state media to argue that the country is fighting not just Ukraine but NATO as well.
Washington and its allies vowed to stand by Kyiv on Tuesday and condemned the planned votes as a “sham” they would never recognize.
Russia held a vote to annex the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, with most of the international community rejecting the results.
But this time, the referendums come amid a full-scale invasion with which Putin seems determined to press ahead.