KYIV: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday announced a partial mobilization in Russia as the war in Ukraine reaches nearly seven months and Moscow loses ground on the battlefield.
Putin’s address to the nation comes a day after Russian-controlled regions in eastern and southern Ukraine announced plans to hold votes on becoming integral parts of Russia. The Kremlin-backed efforts to swallow up four regions could set the stage for Moscow to escalate the war following Ukrainian successes.
Putin said he has signed a decree on the partial mobilization, which is due to start on Wednesday.
“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 have a certain military specialty and relevant experience,” Putin said.
The referendums, which have been expected to take place since the first months of the war, will start Friday in the Luhansk, Kherson and partly Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions.
Putin said the decision to partially mobilize was “fully adequate to the threats we face, namely to protect our homeland, its sovereignty and territorial integrity, to ensure the security of our people and people in the liberated territories.”
He ordered Russia’s first military mobilization since World War Two, warning the West that if it continued what he called its “nuclear blackmail” that Moscow would respond with the might of all its vast arsenal.
Russia’s mobilization was a predictable step that will prove extremely unpopular and underscores that the war is not going according to Moscow’s plan, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said.
Podolyak said that Russian President Vladimir Putin was trying to shift the blame for starting an “unprovoked war” and Russia’s worsening economic situation onto the West.
“Absolutely predictable appeal, which looks more like an attempt to justify their own failure,” Podolyak wrote, giving the first reaction by Ukraine’s presidential office.
“The war is clearly not going according to Russia’s scenario and therefore required Putin to make extremely unpopular decisions to mobilize and severely restrict the rights of people.”
British foreign office minister Gillian Keegan told Sky News that Putin’s speech was a worrying escalation and the threats he made must be taken seriously.
“Clearly it’s something that we should take very seriously because, you know, we’re not in control — I’m not sure he’s in control either, really. This is obviously an escalation,” Keegan said.
“It is chilling … It’s a serious threat, but one that has been made before,” she told the BBC in a separate interview.
Putin restated his objective was to “liberate” eastern Ukraine’s Donbas industrial heartland and that most people in the region did not want to return to what he called the “yoke” of Ukraine.
“The overall address clearly was more of Putin’s lies, it was a rewriting of history,” Keegan said.
Earlier Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday dismissed Russian plans to stage referendums in occupied regions in eastern and southern Ukraine as a “noise” and thanked Ukraine’s allies for condemning the votes scheduled to start Friday.
Four Russian-controlled regions announced plans Tuesday to start voting this week to become integral parts of Russia, which could set the stage for Moscow to escalate the war following Ukrainian successes on the battlefield.
Former President Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council chaired by Putin, said referendums that fold regions into Russia itself would make redrawn frontiers “irreversible” and enable Moscow to use “any means” to defend them.
In his nightly address Zelensky said there were lots of questions surrounding the announcements but stressed that they would not change Ukraine’s commitment to retake areas occupied by Russian forces.
“The situation on the front line clearly indicates that the initiative belongs to Ukraine,” he said. “Our positions do not change because of the noise or any announcements somewhere. And we enjoy the full support of our partners in this.”
The upcoming votes, in the Luhansk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions are all but certain to go Moscow’s way. But they were quickly dismissed as illegitimate by Western leaders who are backing Kyiv with military and other support that has helped its forces seize momentum on battlefields in the east and south.
“I thank all friends and partners of Ukraine for today’s mass principled firm condemnation of Russia’s attempts to stage new sham referenda,” Zelensky said.
In another signal that Russia is digging in for a protracted and possibly ramped-up conflict, the Kremlin-controlled lower of house of parliament voted Tuesday to toughen laws against desertion, surrender and looting by Russian troops. Lawmakers also voted to introduce possible 10-year prison terms for soldiers refusing to fight.
If approved, as expected, by the upper house and then signed by Putin, the legislation would strengthen commanders’ hands against failing morale reported among soldiers.
In the Russian-occupied city of Enerhodar, shelling continued around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. Ukrainian energy operator Energoatom said Russian shelling again damaged infrastructure at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and briefly forced workers to start two diesel generators for emergency power to the cooling pumps for one of the reactors.
Such pumps are essential for avoiding a meltdown at a nuclear facility even though all six of the plant’s reactors have been shut down. Energoatom said the generators were later switched off as main power weas restored.
The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant has been a focus for concern for months because of fears that shelling could lead to a radiation leak. Russia and Ukraine blame each other for the shelling.