Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization of reservists in Russia on Wednesday, in a measure that appeared to be an admission thatisn’t going according to plan. The Russian leader, in a televised address to the nation, also made what appeared to be a veiled reference to Russia’s nuclear capability.
Accusing the West of engaging in “nuclear blackmail,” Putin claimed, without identifying anyone specifically, that there had been, “statements by 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. “It’s not a bluff.”
The move sent some Russians scrambling to buy plane tickets to flee the country.
In Armenia, Sergey arrived with his 17-year-old son, saying they had prepared for such a scenario. Another Russian, Valery, said his wife’s family lives in Kyiv, and mobilization is out of the question for him “just for the moral aspect alone.” Both men declined to give their last names.
Despite Russia’s harsh laws against criticizing the military and the war, protesters outraged by the mobilization overcame their fear of arrest to stage protests in cities across the country. Nearly 1,200 Russians were arrested in anti-war demonstrations in cities including Moscow and St. Petersburg, according to the independent Russian human rights group OVD-Info.
Associated Press journalists in Moscow witnessed at least a dozen arrests in the first 15 minutes of a nighttime protest in the capital, with police in heavy body armor tackling demonstrators in front of shops, hauling some away as they chanted, “No to war!”
“I’m not afraid of anything. The most valuable thing that they can take from us is the life of our children. I won’t give them the life of my child,” said one Muscovite, who declined to give her name.
Asked whether protesting would help, she said: “It won’t help, but it’s my civic duty to express my stance. No to war!”
In Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, police hauled onto buses some of the 40 protesters who were detained at an anti-war rally. One woman in a wheelchair shouted, referring to the Russian president: “Goddamn bald-headed ‘nut job’. He’s going to drop a bomb on us, and we’re all still protecting him. I’ve said enough.”
The Vesna opposition movement called for protests, 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? ”
The Moscow prosecutor’s office warned that organizing or participating in protests could lead to up to 15 years in prison. Authorities have issued similar warnings ahead of other protests. Wednesday’s were the first nationwide anti-war protests since the fighting began in late February.
A full-scale mobilization would likely be unpopular in Russia and could further dent Putin’s standingin Ukraine.
“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 in his address.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the total number of reservists to be called up to fight will be 300,000, adding that only those with relevant combat and service experience would be mobilized. He said there are around 25 million people who fit that criteria, but only around 1% of them would be called up.
Shoigu also said 5,937 Russian soldiers had died in the Ukraine conflict so far, a number far lower than Western estimates that Russia has lost tens of thousands.
“President Putin spoke about how the conditions have changed during the special military operation in his speech,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday. “It was President Putin who said that, in fact, we are now confronted with the military potential of NATO and a number of other countries unfriendly to us.”
In a statement Wednesday evening, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the move by Putin “reflects the Kremlin’s struggles on the battlefield, the unpopularity of the war, and Russians’ unwillingness to fight in it. President Putin is not operating from a position of strength ; rather, this is another sign of his failing mission.”
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace described Putin’s mobilization announcement as “an admission that his invasion is failing.”
“He and his defense minister have sent tens of thousands of their own citizens to their deaths, ill-equipped and badly led,” Wallace said in a statement. “No amount of threats and propaganda can hide the fact that Ukraine is winning this war, the international community is united and Russia is becoming a global pariah.”
In another signal that Russia was digging in for a protracted and possibly ramped-up conflict, the Kremlin-controlled lower house of parliament voted Tuesday to toughen laws against desertion, surrender and looting by Russian troops. Lawmakers also voted to introduce possible 10-year prison terms for soldiers refusing to fight. If approved, as expected, by the upper house and then signed by Putin, the legislation would strengthen commanders’ hands against failing morale reported among soldiers.
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 set the stage for Moscow to escalate the war following Ukrainian successes.
Some of those successes have seen Russian forces pushed back from previously occupied villages just a couple of miles from the Russian border, CBS News’ Debora Patta reports.
“I think we have this fully under control. … The enemy has fully retreated from this territory,” a Ukrainian unit commander in Kazacha Lopan – a Ukrainian territory that was seized by Russia on the first day of the war – told Patta.
“Our aim is not to let the enemy enter here again,” Oplot said.
In his nightly address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukraine’s commitment to retake areas occupied by Russian forces remained unchanged.
“The situation on the front line clearly indicates that the initiative belongs to Ukraine,” he said. “Our positions do not change because of the noise or any announcements somewhere. And we enjoy the full support of our partners in this.”
The referendums, which have been expected to take place since the first months of the war, will start Friday in the Luhansk, Kherson and partially Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions. They are all but certain to go Moscow’s way.
Foreign leaders have described the ballots as illegitimate and non-binding. Zelenskyy said they were a “sham” and “noise” to distract public attention.
“Sham referenda and mobilization are signs of weakness, of Russian failure,” the US Ambassador to Ukraine, Bridget Brink tweeted. “The United States will never recognize Russia’s claim to allegedly annexed Ukrainian territory, and we will continue to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes.”
“After the referendums, protecting people in this region will not be our right, but our duty,” Russian senator Konstantin Kosachev wrote on Telegram. “An attack on people and territories will be an attack on Russia. With all the consequences,” he said.
“What will they be dying for?”
Even a partial mobilization of Russian forces is likely to increase dismay among Russians about the war.
The Russian 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?”
Agence France-Presse reports that jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, in a video statement during a court appearance, said the partial mobilization, “will result in a massive tragedy, in a massive amount of deaths. … In order to keep his personal power, Putin went into a neighboring country, killed people there and is now sending a huge amount of Russian citizens into this war.”
It was unclear how many would dare to protest amid Russia’s overall suppression of opposition and its harsh laws against discrediting soldiers and the military operation.
Putin’s announcement came against the backdrop of, where Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine last February has been the target of broad international criticism. The Russian leader wasn’t attending in person.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is due to address the gathering in a prerecorded address on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, in the Russian-occupied city of Enerhodar, shelling continued around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. Ukrainian energy operator Energoatom said Russian shelling again damaged infrastructure atand briefly forced workers to start two diesel generators for emergency power to the cooling pumps for one of the reactors.
Such pumps are essential for avoiding a meltdown at a nuclear facility even though all six of the plant’s reactors have been shut down. Energoatom said the generators were later switched off as main power was restored.
The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant has been a focus for concern for months because of fears that shelling could lead to a radiation leak. Russia and Ukraine blame each other for the shelling.