Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced the immediate “partial mobilization” of Russian citizens in an escalation of Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine and pledged to use “all means” to defend the country and its people.
“Our country also has various means of destruction and in some components more modern than those of the NATO countries, and if the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people,” Putin said in a speech Wednesday indicating a possible new chapter in the months long conflict.
The latest developments follow a significant shift in Russia’s position after a sudden and successful Ukrainian offensive through most of occupied Kharkiv this month, which has galvanized Ukraine’s Western backers and led to recriminations in Moscow.
Addressing the potential for escalation and use of nuclear weapons, Putin said “those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the prevailing winds can turn in their direction.”
Conducting “partial mobilization” in the country was necessary in order to “protect our homeland, its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Russian leader said, and those efforts would begin Wednesday with their decree was already signed.
The mobilization would mean citizens who are in the reserve and those with military experience would be subject to conscription, he added.
The announcement comes as Russia is believed to face shortages of manpower and follows amendments to Russia’s law on military service made Tuesday, which raise the penalties for resistance related to military service or coercion to violate an official military order during a period of mobilization or martial law.
Putin framed the ongoing fighting as part of a larger struggle for Russian survival against a West whose goal is it is to “weaken, divide and ultimately destroy our country” – a statement that takes on more weight as several Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine announced referendums multiple Kremlin-backed authorities in occupied areas of eastern and southern Ukraine that they will hold referendums on formally joining Russia this week.
“They are already saying directly that they were able to split the Soviet Union in 1991 and now the time has come for Russia to break up into a multitude of regions and areas which are fatally hostile to each other,” he said.
The referendums, which Putin backed during his speech Wednesday, could pave the way for Russian annexation of the areas, allowing Moscow to frame the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive there as an attack on Russia itself, thereby providing Moscow with a pretext to escalate its military response.
In what appeared to be a coordinated announcement, Russian-appointed leaders in the occupied regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia and the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic all said they planned to hold “votes” beginning on September 23.
Together the four regions that have announced their referendum plans make up around 18% of Ukraine’s territory. Russia does not control any of the four in their entirety.
The expected referendums, which run counter to international law upholding Ukraine’s sovereignty, have been announced as world leaders have descended on New York for a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, where the war and it impacts were already poised to loom large.
Ukraine has dismissed the announcement of referendums in the occupied regions as a “sham” stemming from the “fear of defeat,” while the the country’s Western supporters signaled they would not alter their support for Ukraine.
Putin on Wednesday said Russia has been asked for support from the two “people’s republics” and the regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia for the referendums and had pledged to do “everything to ensure the safe conditions for people to express their will.”
The announcements had already received swift support from Russian politicians. Former Russian President and vice-chairman of Russia’s National Security Council Dmitry Medvedev has publicly endorsed referendums in the self-declared Donbas republics, saying this would have “huge significance” for “systemic protection” of the residents.
“Encroachment on Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self-defense,” Medvedev said on his Telegram channel, in an apparent allusion to the potential for the military escalation.
It’s unclear what form an escalation could take, but concerns have been raised throughout the conflict over whether Russia would resort to using its nuclear stockpile in the Ukraine.
US President Joe Biden addressed these concerns in a 60 Minutes interview earlier this week, when a reporter asked what he would say to the Russian leader regarding the use of chemical or tactical nuclear weapons.
“Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. You will change the face of war unlike anything since World War II,” Biden said, adding that the US response to such actions would be “consequential.”
Putin endorsed a new “deterrent” strategy in June 2020 that allowed for the use of nuclear weapons in response to a non-nuclear attack on Russia that threatened its existence.
On Tuesday, Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, amended the law on military service, toughening the punishment for violation of military service duties – such as desertion and evasion from service – according to state news agency TASS.
The bill sets a jail term of up to 15 years for resistance related to military service or coercion to violate an official military order, involving violence or the threat of its use, during the period of mobilization or martial law.