Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the partial mobilization of his country’s military on Wednesday and called in military reservists in a significant escalation of his war in Ukraine after a series of setbacks that led to mounting pressure on the Kremlin to intervene.
In a rare national speech, the Russian leader also indicated that the Kremlin plans to annex occupied areas in southern and eastern Ukraine and threatened nuclear retaliation if Kiev continues its efforts to reclaim that country.
The speech came just a day after four Russian-controlled areas in southern and eastern Ukraine announced they would vote on formal accession to Russia this week, in a plan that Kiev and its Western allies dismissed as a desperate “sham” aimed at deterring a successful counter-offensive by Ukrainian forces.
The Russian parliament also passed a bill to tighten penalties for a wide range of crimes, including desertion and surrender, when committed during periods of mobilization or under martial law.
The sudden surge in activity signaled that the Kremlin plans not only to dig in, but to step up its efforts in a conflict that has dragged on for nearly seven months and has recently fallen from its forces. Public supporters welcomed the prospect of “all-out war” and another confrontation with the West, who warned that holding “fake votes” in those areas would constitute an illegal escalation.
Until now, Putin had resisted calls from nationalist supporters and pro-military bloggers for a general mobilization since the launch of his large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
It was unclear what impact holding the moves on the ground would have.
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 exhausted and increasingly discouraged.
The general mobilization could boost Putin’s ailing troops, but it will likely take some time to take effect on the battlefield and may also prove unpopular with a Russian public that has tried to protect it from the effects of the war.
The rapid developments came just a week after Ukraine successfully reclaimed parts of the territory, which many observers believe could be a decisive shift in the conflict.
Under mounting pressure, the Kremlin now appears to be springing into action.
Separatist officials in the eastern areas of Luhansk and Donetsk, as well as in the southern Kherson region and partially occupied Zaporizhzhya, announced they would vote for four days from Friday on leaving Ukraine and joining Russia, Russia’s state news agency Tass reported.
It was not clear whether the proposed annexation would cover the entire territory of the provinces or only the areas currently occupied by Russian forces.
Washington denounced the planned votes as a “sham” it would never acknowledge.
“We are aware of reports that President Putin may be preparing to take mobilization measures. Like the mock annexation plan, this reflects Russia’s struggle in Ukraine,” said Jake Sullivan, White House national security adviser.
French President Emmanuel Macron called the planned votes “cynical” and “a parody”. In New York, where world leaders attend the United Nations General Assembly, Macron told reporters that if the “idea wasn’t so tragic, it would be funny”.
Kiev has been boosted by weapons supplied by the West, including long-range missile systems supplied by the US, leading voices in Russian state media to claim that the country is fighting not only Ukraine but NATO as well.
One of the Kremlin’s most aggressive figures, former President Dmitry Medvedev, said on Monday that holding the referenda was “of great importance”, while saying that absorbing the Donbas provinces would be equating to attacking Russia. which would increase the risk of further escalation as Ukrainian forces advance further into the area.
The editor-in-chief of Kremlin-backed RT, Margarita Simonyan, who is one of the war’s most vocal proponents, also invoked the idea of red lines.
“A referendum today, tomorrow – recognition as part of the Russian Federation, the day after tomorrow – strikes on Russia’s territory will become a full-fledged war between Ukraine and NATO with Russia, loosing Russia’s hands in every way,” she said in a statement. . a message on Telegram.
The news about the planned referendums was condemned by Kiev.
“Sham referendums will not change anything,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said. “Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will continue to liberate them no matter what Russia has to say,” he said. said in a tweet.
The head of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office, Andriy Yermak, said the referendums are part of Russia’s “naive blackmail”.
“This is what the fear of defeat looks like,” Yermak wrote in a post on the Telegram messaging app.
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 large-scale invasion.
Russia captured the entire Luhansk region in July after fierce fighting and fought Ukrainian forces in neighboring Donetsk. The two provinces together make up the industrial Donbas region, which has made Moscow the primary target of what it calls its “special military operation” since it failed to take the capital Kiev.
Russia-backed separatists in the region have fought Ukrainian forces in a deadly conflict since 2014. Putin recognized the independence of the breakaway regions ahead of his large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February.