Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization of reservists Wednesday, taking a risky and deeply unpopular step that follows humiliating setbacks for his troops nearly seven months after invading Ukraine.
The first such call-up in Russia since World War II heightened tensions with the Western backers of Ukraine, who derided it as an act of weakness and desperation. The move also sent some Russians scrambling to buy plane tickets out of the country, and hundreds of people were arrested at antiwar demonstrations across the country.
In his seven-minute nationally televised address, Putin also warned the West that he isn’t bluffing over using everything at his disposal to protect Russia — an apparent reference to his nuclear arsenal. He has previously told the West not to back Russia against the wall and has rebuked NATO countries for supplying weapons to Ukraine.
The Kremlin has struggled to replenish its troops in Ukraine, reaching out for volunteers. There have even been reports of widespread recruitment in prisons.
The total number of reservists to be called up could be as high as 300,000, officials said. However, Putin’s decree authorizing the partial mobilization, which took effect immediately, offered few details, raising suspicions that the draft could be broadened at any moment. Notably, one clause was kept secret.
Despite Russia’s harsh laws against criticizing the military and the war, there were protests across the country. More than 800 Russians were arrested in anti-war protests in 37 Russian cities, including Moscow and St. Petersburg, according to the independent Russian human rights group OVD-Info.
An Associated Press crew in Moscow witnessed at least a dozen arrests in the first 15 minutes of a protest in the capital.
Asked whether protesting would help, one Muscovite who declined to give their name said: “It won’t help, but it’s my civic duty to express my stance. No to war!”
“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 Vesna opposition movement said, calling for protests.
As protest calls circulated online, the Moscow prosecutor’s office warned that organizing or participating in such actions could lead to up to 15 years in prison. Authorities issued similar warnings ahead of other protests recently. Wednesday’s were the first nationwide antiwar protests since the war began in late February.
The state communication watchdog Roskomnadzor also warned media that access to their websites would be blocked for transmitting “false information” about the mobilization. It was unclear exactly what that meant.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, asked what had changed since he and others previously said no mobilization was planned, said Russia is effectively fighting NATO because the alliance’s members have supplied weapons to Kyiv.
Western leaders said the mobilization was in response to Russia’s recent battlefield losses in Ukraine.
U.S. national security council spokesperson John Kirby said Putin’s speech is “definitely a sign that he’s struggling, and we know that.”
President Joe Biden told the U.N. General Assembly: “We will stand in solidarity against Russia’s aggression, period.” He said Putin’s new nuclear threats against Europe showed “reckless disregard” for Russia’s responsibilities as a signer of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Photo: “14/11/2019 Sessão Plenária da XI Cúpula de Líderes do BRICS” by Palácio do Planalto is licensed under CC BY