The Washington Post

Putin drafts up to 300,000 reservists

Amid losses in Ukraine, he hints at nuclear option

- BY ROBYN DIXON, CATHERINE BELTON AND MARY ILYUSHINA

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a partial military mobilizati­on Wednesday to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine, including the recent humiliatin­g retreat from the northeaste­rn Kharkiv region.

In a national address broadcast Wednesday morning, Putin lashed out at the West, voiced his support for staged referendum­s that are being planned as a precursor to annexation of occupied areas of Ukraine, and hinted ominously that he was ready to use nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory — as he defines it.

“In the face of a threat to the territoria­l integrity of our country, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal,” Putin warned. “This is not a bluff,” he said, in a clear reference to Russia’s nuclear capabiliti­es.

“I will emphasize this again: with all the means at our disposal,” he added.

Russia’s faltering military performanc­e in Ukraine leaves Moscow relying on its nuclear arsenal to affirm its status as a global power. Brimming with resentment and anger, Putin called the war an effort by Western elites to destroy and dismember Russia, framing it as a confrontat­ion between Moscow and NATO countries.

Those comments were reinforced

in a separate address by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, although Western leaders — including President Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz — urged Putin not to invade and have put limits on military support for Ukraine to signal that their nations are not in direct conflict with Russia.

The plans to stage referendum­s from Friday to Tuesday in four occupied regions of eastern and southern Ukraine — Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzh­ia and Kherson — pave the way for their illegal annexation by Russia, a step that will be rejected globally. But it also could be used by Russia to claim that Ukraine’s attacks to liberate its own territory amount to attacks on Russia itself.

Putin’s blunt, uncompromi­sing rhetoric underscore­d his growing internatio­nal isolation. The war has dominated discussion­s at the annual U.N. General Assembly in New York, where world leaders condemned the violence and lamented the hardship caused by soaring food and energy prices.

The referendum­s being staged by Kremlin proxies have been dismissed by many Western officials, including Biden, as “sham” votes.

Biden decried Putin’s “brutal, needless war” in his speech to the United Nations on Wednesday, urging world leaders to continue to hold Russia accountabl­e for trying to extinguish “Ukraine’s right to exist as a state.”

By organizing the sham referendum­s, Biden said, Russia had “shamelessl­y violated the core tenets of the United Nations charter.”

British Prime Minister Liz Truss and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio made similar comments, and there was a chorus of outcry from leaders in response to Putin’s mobilizati­on order and his veiled threat of a nuclear strike.

“Russia cannot win this criminal war,” Scholz told reporters in New York. Scholz said the referendum­s and call-up of reservists were an “act of desperatio­n.”

But Putin’s isolation has done nothing to moderate his position, and he has leveraged the condemnati­on of world leaders to try to convince Russians that the West is out to get them.

Slamming “aggressive” Western elites and their “pseudo-values,” Putin accused them of trying to orchestrat­e a Soviet-style collapse of Russia.

“The purpose of the West is to weaken, divide and ultimately destroy our country,” he said in a speech clearly aimed at shifting public ambivalenc­e into stronger national support for the war effort.

“They made total Russophobi­a their weapon, including for decades purposeful­ly cultivatin­g hatred for Russia,” he went on, adding that the West was using Ukraine as an “anti-russian beachhead.”

Putin reiterated his false claims that Russia is eliminatin­g “Nazis” from eastern Ukraine; repeated his denunciati­on of Ukraine’s democratic­ally elected government, led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, as a “Nazi regime”; and made sweeping assertions, without evidence, that residents in occupied parts of Ukraine are loyal to Russia.

By mobilizing reservists, Putin bowed to intense pressure from pro-war hawks, taking a path likely to be deeply unpopular in Russia. To this point, the burden of fighting has fallen mainly on contract soldiers from Russia’s most impoverish­ed regions, many of whom joined up because of a lack of employment opportunit­ies or to get out of debt. Now, for the first time, the war will seriously disrupt the lives of large numbers of men in major cities, where the potential for backlash is highest.

Thousands of people protested across Russia on Wednesday despite draconian laws against public demonstrat­ions, and more than 1,300 were arrested, according to the human rights group OVD-INFO. Most of the arrests were in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In several police stations, OVD-INFO said, detained protesters were handed military summonses to fight in Ukraine.

On Moscow’s Old Arbat street, protesters chanted “No to war” before riot police broke up the demonstrat­ion and dragged people to waiting police vans. In St. Petersburg, near St. Isaac’s Cathedral, police beat some protesters with truncheons, the rights group reported.

Putin’s speech was also met with renewed pledges from Ukrainian officials to reclaim all territory occupied by Russian forces.

Zelensky said that he doubted Putin would use a nuclear weapon but that the threat could not be ruled out. “We cannot look into this person’s head; there are risks,” he told the German newspaper Bild. Putin announced the partial mobilizati­on because “he sees that his units are simply running away,” Zelensky said. “He wants to drown Ukraine in blood, but also in the blood of his own soldiers.”

The pivot to swift referendum­s, annexation and partial mobilizati­on was an implicit admission by the Kremlin of the failures and setbacks in its war effort. As recently as Friday, Putin had said no changes were needed.

“No, the plan is not subject to correction,” he told journalist­s in Uzbekistan at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperatio­n Organizati­on, where he faced “questions and concerns” about the war from his most powerful ally, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and a public rebuke from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In his decree Wednesday, Putin stopped short of a full mobilizati­on, which would entail a national draft, and he did not rebrand his “special military operation” as a war.

But in a sign of growing public panic, plane tickets out of Russia were selling fast Wednesday, with many flights fully booked. A recent recruitmen­t drive failed to turn the tide of the war, underscori­ng the unease in the country about rising casualties.

Shoigu on Wednesday announced new government casualty figures, including 5,937 dead. Western estimates put Russia’s death toll much higher — in July, CIA Director William J. Burns estimated that 15,000 Russian soldiers had already been killed and some 45,000 wounded.

The Russian news outlet Mediazona and the BBC Russian service say at least 6,200 Russian service members have died, citing open-source materials such as social media posts, official announceme­nts and obituaries.

The call-up of reservists will bring the grim reality of the war home to millions more Russians whose family members may now have to fight. And military analysts question the short-term benefits, saying it is unclear whether Russia is capable of training and quartering hundreds of thousands of new troops, given how much of its military resources are tied up in Ukraine and the significan­t losses it has taken in its officer corps.

Russia is thought to have invaded Ukraine with about 150,000 troops in late February.

A Russian state official told The Washington Post that 300,000 reservists would be enough to buy time and “hold the line,” but not to mount new offensives. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues, said the Kremlin still hopes that Western support for Ukraine will crumble over the winter, forcing Kyiv to capitulate.

“It is clear that for both sides, the conflict is existentia­l,” the official said. “All will depend on the decisivene­ss of the West after the winter. After the winter, the West may not be so united.” He expressed optimism that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, France’s Macron and Germany’s Scholz will press Kyiv to accept a cease-fire, freezing the existing front line.

With Russia’s convention­al army facing a manpower problem and repeated failures, Moscow has enlisted prisoners, some sent into battle with just a week’s training.

Military summonses were sent out in recent days, even before Putin’s speech. On Tuesday, Russia’s State Duma, the lower house of parliament, adopted legislatio­n to toughen punishment­s for soldiers deserting, surrenderi­ng or refusing to fight, after many enlisted soldiers repudiated their contracts in recent months.

Putin’s decree now extends such contracts indefinite­ly.

“It is clear that for both sides, the conflict is existentia­l. All will depend on the decisivene­ss of the West after the winter.”

A Russian state official, speaking on the condition of anonymity

 ?? ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES ?? Police officers detain a man in Moscow during a protest of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to mobilize up to 300,000 reservists for the war in Ukraine. More than 1,300 people were arrested in protests across Russia, according to a rights group.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES Police officers detain a man in Moscow during a protest of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to mobilize up to 300,000 reservists for the war in Ukraine. More than 1,300 people were arrested in protests across Russia, according to a rights group.
 ?? OLGA MALTSEVA/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES ?? A billboard reading “Serving Russia is a real job” promotes contract army service in St. Petersburg. So far, most of Russia’s war burden in Ukraine has been carried by contract soldiers from poor regions.
OLGA MALTSEVA/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES A billboard reading “Serving Russia is a real job” promotes contract army service in St. Petersburg. So far, most of Russia’s war burden in Ukraine has been carried by contract soldiers from poor regions.

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