KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — 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 call-up in Russia since World War II is sure to further fuel tensions with the Western backers of Ukraine, who derided the move as an act of weakness and desperation. The move also sent Russians scrambling to buy plane tickets out of the country and reportedly sparked some demonstrations.
The Kremlin has struggled to replenish its troops in Ukraine, reaching out for volunteers to serve in battalions. There even have been reports of widespread recruitment in prisons.
In his seven-minute televised address to the nation, Putin also warned the West 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 total number of reservists to be called up could be as high as 300,000, officials said. However, the decree offered few details, raising suspicions among analysts and Kremlin critics that the draft could be broaden out at any moment. Notably, one clause was kept secret.
Even a partial mobilization is likely to increase dismay or sow doubt among Russians about the war. Shortly after Putin’s address, Russian media reported a sharp spike in demand for plane tickets abroad amid an apparent scramble to leave despite exorbitant prices.
The Vesna opposition movement called for nationwide protests.
“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 group said.
It was unclear how many would protest, given Russia’s harsh laws against criticizing the military and the invasion of Ukraine. Avtozak, a Russian group that monitors protests, reported demonstrations attracting dozens of people in cities, including the Siberian cities of Ulan-Ude and Tomsk, and Khabarovsk in the Far East, with some arrests.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, asked what had changed since he and others previously said no mobilization was planned, said Russia is effectively fighting against NATO because the alliance’s members have been supplying weapons to Kyiv.
The partial mobilization order came a day after Russian-controlled regions in eastern and southern Ukraine announced plans to hold votes on becoming integral parts of Russia — a move that could eventually allow Moscow to escalate the war on legal grounds. The referendums will start Friday in the Luhansk, Kherson and partly Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions.
The balloting is all but certain to go Moscow’s way. Foreign leaders have described the votes as illegitimate and nonbinding. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said they were a “sham” and “noise” to distract public attention.
Putin’s speech is “definitely a sign that he’s struggling, and we know that,” U.S. national security council spokesperson John Kirby said.
Russia has suffered tens of thousands of casualties, has command and control issues, terrible troop morale, desertion problems and is “forcing the wounded back (into) the fight,” Kirby said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Added White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on MSNBC: “It’s all because Russia is losing ground on the battlefield.”
Only those with relevant combat and service experience will be mobilized, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said. He added about 25 million people fit this criteria but only around 1% of them will be mobilized.
Another key clause in the decree prevents most professional soldiers from terminating their contracts and leaving service until the partial mobilization is no longer in place.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been the target of broad international criticism at the U.N. General Assembly that has kept up intense diplomatic pressure on Moscow. Zelenskky is due to speak to the gathering in a prerecorded address later Wednesday. Putin is not attending.
Putin’s gambit has a strong element of risk: It could backfire by making the war unpopular at home and hurting his own standing. It also concedes Russia’s underlying military shortcomings.
A Ukraine counteroffensive this month has seized the military initiative from Russia, as well as capturing large areas in Ukraine that the Russians once held. Its speed saw Russian troops abandon armored vehicles and other weapons as they retreated.
A spokesman for Zelenskyy called the mobilization a “big tragedy” for the Russian people.
In a statement to The Associated Press, Sergii Nikiforov said conscripts sent to Ukraine would face a similar fate as ill-prepared Russian forces who were repelled in an attack on Kyiv in the first days of the war.
“This is a recognition of the incapacity of the Russian professional army, which has failed in all its tasks,” Nikiforov said.
The Russian mobilization is unlikely to produce any consequences on the battlefield for months because of a lack of training facilities and equipment.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace described Putin’s move as “an admission that his invasion is failing.”
Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said Putin’s announcement smacked of “an act of desperation.” He predicted that Russians will resist the mobilization through “passive sabotage.”
“People will evade this mobilization in every possible way, bribe their way out of this mobilization, leave the country,” Oreshkin told the AP.
The announcement will be unpopular, he said, describing it as “a huge personal blow to Russian citizens, who until recently (took part in the hostilities) with pleasure, sitting on their couches, (watching) TV. And now the war has come into their home.”
The war in Ukraine, which has killed thousands of people, has driven up food prices worldwide and caused energy costs to soar. It has also brought fears of a potential nuclear catastrophe at Europe’s largest nuclear plant in Ukraine’s now Russia-occupied southeast. Investigations are also underway into possible war crimes atrocities committed by Moscow’s forces.
In his address, which was far shorter than previous speeches about the Ukraine war, Putin accused the West of engaging in “nuclear blackmail” and noted “statements of some high-ranking representatives of the leading NATO states about the possibility of using nuclear weapons of mass destruction against Russia.”
He didn’t elaborate.
“To those who allow themselves such statements regarding Russia, I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction … and when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal,” Putin said, adding: “It’s not a bluff.”
Putin said he has already signed the decree for partial mobilization, which starts immediately, and stressed its limited scale.
“We are talking about partial mobilization, that is, only citizens who are currently in the reserve will be subject to conscription, and above all, those who served in the armed forces who have a certain military specialty and relevant experience,” Putin said.
Shoigu said 5,937 Russian soldiers have died in the conflict, far lower than Western estimates of tens of thousands.