Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered the partial mobilization of reservists to bolster his troops in Ukraine, a highly unpopular move that sparked rare protests across the country, This resulted in the arrest of nearly 1,200 people.
The dangerous order comes nearly seven months after Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine, in a humiliating setback. Russia’s first such call since World War II has fueled tensions with Ukraine’s Western backers, who derided it as an act of weakness and desperation.
The move also left some Russians scrambling to buy plane tickets to flee the country.
In a 14-minute nationally televised address, Putin also warned the West that he was not bluffing to use everything he had to protect Russia – an apparent reference to his nuclear arsenal. He has previously accused NATO countries of supplying weapons to Ukraine.
Faced with massive battlefield losses, expanding fronts and a conflict lasting longer than expected, the Kremlin has struggled to replenish its forces in Ukraine, reportedly conducting extensive recruitment even in prisons.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the total number of reservists called up could be as high as 300,000. However, Putin’s decree authorizing partial mobilization, which took effect immediately, provided few details, raising suspicions that the draft could be expanded at any time. It is worth noting that there is a clause that is confidential.
Despite Russia’s draconian laws against criticizing the military and war, protesters angry at the mobilization overcame fears of arrest to stage protests in cities across the country. Nearly 1,200 Russians were arrested during anti-war demonstrations in cities including Moscow and St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg, according to OVD-Info, an independent Russian human rights organization.
Associated Press reporters in Moscow witnessed at least 12 arrests in the first 15 minutes of nighttime protests in the capital, with police in heavy body armor tackling demonstrators in front of stores and chanting “No war!” Some people dragged away.
“I am not afraid of anything. The most precious thing they can take from us is the life of our children. I will not give them my child’s life,” said a Muscovite who declined to be named.
Asked if protesting helped, she said: “It doesn’t help, but it’s my civic duty to express my position. No wars!”
In Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, police dragged some of the 40 protesters detained at an anti-war rally onto a bus. A woman in a wheelchair pointed at the Russian president and shouted: “Damn bald ‘madman’. He’ll drop bombs on us while we’re all protecting him. I’ve said enough.”
The Vesner opposition movement called for protests, saying: “Thousands of Russian men – our fathers, brothers and husbands – will be thrown into the meat grinder of war. What will they die for? Moms and children will What are you crying for?”
Organizing or participating in protests could lead to up to 15 years in prison, the Moscow prosecutor’s office warned. Authorities have issued similar warnings ahead of other protests. Wednesday’s protest was the first nationwide anti-war protest since fighting began in late February.
Other Russians responded by trying to leave the country, and outbound flights were quickly booked.
In Armenia, Sergey arrived with his 17-year-old son, saying they were ready for the situation. Another Russian, Valery, said his wife’s family lived in Kyiv and that mobilization was impossible for him “only for moral reasons”. Both declined to give their last names.
Roskomnadzor, the state communications regulator, has warned the media that their websites will be blocked for transmitting “false information” about the mobilization.
Residents in Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, appeared frustrated with the mobilization as they watched emergency workers clear debris from a Russian rocket attack on two apartment buildings.
“You just don’t know what to expect from him,” said 66-year-old Kharkiv resident Olena Milevska, “but you do understand that it’s a personal thing for him.”
In calling for mobilization, Putin cited the length of the front, which he said was more than 1,000 kilometers (over 620 miles). He also said that Russia is effectively countering the combined military power of Western countries.
Western leaders said the mobilization was in response to Russia’s recent losses on the battlefield.
President Joe Biden tells UN General Assembly that Putin’s new nuclear threat shows ‘reckless disregard’ Russia’s responsibilities as a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Hours later, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged world leaders at meeting Stripped Russia of voting rights in international institutions and a veto in the UN Security Council, saying aggressors needed to be punished and isolated.
Zelensky said in the video that his troops “can return the Ukrainian flag to our entire territory. We can do it with the power of weapons. But we need time.”
Putin did not attend the meeting.
On Wednesday evening, following an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell pledged to impose more sanctions on Russia over Russia’s escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. He said he was sure there would be “unanimous agreement” to sanction the Russian economy and Russian individuals.
“It is clear that Putin is trying to destroy Ukraine. Since he has failed militarily, he is trying to destroy the country in a different way,” Borrell said.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny said the mobilization meant the war “is getting worse, deepening, and Putin is trying to involve as many people as possible. … It’s just about putting one person in personal power.”
Part of the mobilization order came two days before a referendum on Russian-held eastern and southern regions of Ukraine planned to become part of Russia – a move that could see Moscow escalate the war. Voting will begin on Friday in Luhansk, Kherson and parts of the Russian-held Zaporozhye and Donetsk regions.
Foreign leaders have called the vote illegal and non-binding. They are a “hoax” and “noise” to distract the public, Zelensky said.
Michael Coffman, head of Russia research at the Washington-based CNA think tank, said Putin had staked his regime on war, and annexation “is a point of no return”, as is mobilization “to a certain extent.”
“Part of the mobilization affects everyone. Everyone in Russia understands that … they could be the next wave, and this is just the first wave,” Coffman said.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that only some people with relevant combat and service experience will be transferred. About 25 million people meet that criterion, but only about 1 percent will mobilize, he said.
It is unclear how many years of combat experience or how many training levels of soldiers must be mobilized. Another clause in the statute prohibits most professional soldiers from terminating their contracts before they are partially mobilized.
Putin’s mobilization tactics could backfire, making the war unpopular at home and damaging his own standing. It also acknowledged Russia’s potential military shortcomings.
A Ukrainian counteroffensive this month took the military initiative from Russia and seized swathes of Ukraine from Russian troops.
A Russian mobilization is unlikely to have any consequences on the battlefield for months due to a lack of training facilities and equipment.
Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said it appeared to be “an act of desperation”.
“People are going to escape this mobilization in every possible way, get out of this mobilization with bribes, leave the country,” he said.
He described the announcement as “a huge personal blow to the citizens of Russia, who until recently sat gleefully on the sofa (watching) TV. Now the war has entered their homes.”
In his speech, Putin accused the West of “nuclear blackmail” and cited what he called “statements of some high-ranking representatives of major NATO countries regarding the possible use of nuclear weapons of mass destruction against Russia”.
He did not elaborate.
“When the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will use all means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people,” Putin said.
In other developments, relatives of two U.S. veterans who went missing while fighting Russia with Ukrainian forces said they were released after about three months in captivity. They were part of an exchange of 10 prisoners arranged by Saudi Arabia from the United States, Morocco, Britain, Sweden and Croatia.
In a separate press release, Ukraine announced earlier on Thursday that it had won the freedom of Russia against 215 Ukrainian and foreign citizens, including fighters who defended a besieged steel plant in the city of Mariupol for months. Zelensky released a video showing an official briefing him on the release of citizens in exchange for pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Medvechuk and 55 others being held in Ukraine.
Yesica Fisch of Kharkov contributed to this story.
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