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Putin mobilizes more troops for Ukraine, threatens nuclear retaliation and backs annexation of Russian-occupied land

In a rare national address Wednesday, the Russian leader announced the partial mobilization of reservists after a series of battlefield setbacks.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the partial mobilization of military reservists Wednesday, a significant escalation of his war in Ukraine after battlefield setbacks left the Kremlin facing growing pressure to act.

In a rare national address, Putin also backed plans for Russia to annex occupied areas of southern and eastern Ukraine and appeared to threaten nuclear retaliation if Kyiv continues its efforts to reclaim that land.

The announcement came just a day after four Russian-controlled areas announced they would stage votes this week on breaking away from Ukraine and joining Russia, a plan Kyiv and its Western allies dismissed as a desperate “sham” to deter 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: “This is not a bluff.”

Speaking after him, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said 300,000 reservists would be called up initially.

Only those with relevant combat and service experience will be mobilized, he said. Another clause in the decree, which went into effect immediately, prevents most professional soldiers from terminating their contracts and leaving service until the partial mobilization is no longer in place.

Across Russia, more than 1,300 people were detained at protests denouncing the move, a rights group said.

The independent OVD-Info protest monitoring group said that according to information it had collated from 38 Russian cities, more than 1,311 people had been held by late evening.

President Joe Biden excoriated Moscow on Wednesday, telling world leaders in a speech at the United Nations General Assembly that Putin's war is "about extinguishing Ukraine's right to exist."

"If nations can pursue their imperial ambitions without consequences, then we put at risk everything this very institution stands for — everything," Biden said, pledging that the U.S. would continue to stand with "courageous Ukrainian soldiers."

Washington said Putin's escalation was an expected step that showed his military campaign was failing.

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.

The Defense Department characterized Putin's latest move in similar terms.

"Like Russia’s planned sham referenda to annex territory in Ukraine, the announcement and associated threats are another sign that Russia is struggling to salvage its illegal occupation of Ukraine," a Pentagon spokesman, Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, said in a statement.

The new deployments could include Russian fighters from major cities, a move that might undermine Putin's domestic support if thousands of young people wind up leaving for Ukraine, a U.S. defense official and a U.S. official said.

Four U.S. officials said Putin's apparent threat of nuclear retaliation was "irresponsible," confirming that there has been no change in Russia's nuclear or chemical capabilities.

Putin has resisted calls from nationalist supporters and pro-military bloggers for a general mobilization since he launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

On Wednesday, he 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 whether the partial mobilization will spare him those same concerns.

Meanwhile, Ukraine's deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, made a direct appeal to Russian fighters on the messaging platform Telegram, saying in part: "If you were mobilized and you ended up on the territory of Ukraine, you can simply surrender.

"You save the most valuable thing — your life — for yourself and for your loved ones," Vereshchuk said Wednesday. "This is better than an inglorious death in a foreign land."

'Sham’ votes

The sudden flurry of activity signaled that the Kremlin intends not just to dig in but also 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 partly occupied Zaporizhzhia, announced Tuesday that they would hold votes on formally joining Russia over four days starting Friday. It wasn’t clear whether the proposed annexation would cover the entire territory of the provinces or only the areas occupied by Russian forces.

Russia Putin Address Broadcast
Servicemen in the breakaway Russian-controlled area of Donetsk watch Vladimir Putin's address. Sputnik via AP

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, which Moscow has made its primary goal since it failed to seize Kyiv, the capital. And it has also been waging a simultaneous second counteroffensive in the south to wear down Russian forces gathered 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 — although 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 also NATO.

Washington and its allies vowed Tuesday to stand by Kyiv 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 that Putin seems determined to press ahead with.