In a rare address to the nation, the Russian president said more troops are being called up for a “special military operation” in Ukraine, claiming it as a necessary step to ensure the “territorial integrity” of the country and its people.
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The speech came a day after separatist leaders in four Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine announced referendums would take place this week on breaking away from Ukraine and joining Russia. Kyiv and its Western allies have dismissed the proposed votes as a “sham” and a precursor to annexation of the type seen in the now Russian-held territory of Crimea.
Putin accused the West of engaging in “nuclear blackmail” against Russia, and said the country would use all the means at its disposal to protect its territory and allow the referendums to go ahead. He warned: “I am not bluffing.”
Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu said that an initial 300,000 reservists would be called up, with the mobilisation starting immediately. Shoigu attempted to “dampen down the fears” of Russian men and their families over the mobilisation by assuring them that only men with “battle experience” will be called up, and “students would not be used”, said the BBC.
Russia’s attempt to annex more Ukrainian territory through these referendums, which are illegal under Ukrainian and international law, “marks the latest roll of the dice” from Putin, said The Washington Post.
Having been “humbled” on the battlefield in recent weeks, he may believe “changing the political facts on the ground could stymie Ukrainian advances and force a recalculation among Western governments”, said the paper.
And after annexing these territories, “Moscow would likely declare Ukrainian attacks on those areas to be assaults on Russia itself”, which could trigger “general military mobilization or a dangerous escalation such as the use of a nuclear weapon against Ukraine”, wrote Robyn Dixon, the Post’s Moscow bureau chief.
The consequences of a nuclear strike against Ukraine would “of course, be catastrophic”, said The Daily Telegraph. Ukraine and its Western allies will now have to weigh up “how serious is the nuclear threat”.
“Is Putin, his back to the wall, likely to carry out an attack that would risk turning Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe, into a nuclear wasteland? What would be the point in Moscow trying to occupy Ukraine, if only to obliterate it?” the paper asked.
This new mobilisation of reservist forces is likely to prove extremely unpopular with the Russian public and shows the war is not going to plan. Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak told Reuters that the rare television address was an “absolutely predictable appeal, which looks more like an attempt to justify their own failure”.
Even with the calling up of these new troops, it can take months “to mobilise, equip and organise new fighting forces, even if those being called up have previous military experience”, said the BBC‘s diplomatic correspondent Paul Adams. He said that reservists are unlikely to be involved in fighting “until next spring”.
The Russian government will also have to contend with low morale among its troops. The Kremlin, Adams said, is finding it increasingly difficult to “organise and equip the forces they already have in the fight, let alone new ones”. And troops already serving in Ukraine will be learning that their contracts are to be extended, “just as the prospect of a long hard winter looms”.