Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Wednesday the partial mobilization of his country’s military reserves in a move that follows Ukrainian gains in a counteroffensive in northeastern Ukraine.
Putin said in a televised address the mobilization is necessary to protect Russia’s homeland and sovereignty.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the military would be calling up 300,000 reservists.
Putin said the West is trying to weaken and destroy Russia, and that his country will “use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people.”
“In its aggressive anti-Russian policy, the West has crossed every line,” he said. “This is not a bluff. And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weathervane can turn and point towards them.”
After Putin spoke, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he is calling an urgent meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers Wednesday night in New York, following what he characterized as a “major escalation” by the Russian leader.
“By the threat of using nuclear weapons, he is trying to intimidate Ukraine and all countries that support Ukraine,” Borrell told reporters on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. “But he will fail. He has failed, and he will fail again.”
Borrell said the international community cannot accept such a threat, and that leaders at the U.N. this week must react.
As for the European Union, he said the bloc will not be intimidated and will continue its military and economic support to Kyiv. Borrell said the bloc would also consider new sanctions on Russia, especially if it goes ahead with planned referenda in occupied parts of Ukraine.
European Council President Charles Michel tweeted that Putin made his announcement about troop mobilization as countries gathered for the U.N. General Assembly to “work for cooperation, security and prosperity.”
“In this war, there is only one aggressor, Russia, and one aggressed country, Ukraine,” Michel said. “EU’s support to Ukraine will remain steadfast.”
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in a statement that Putin and Shoigu “have sent tens of thousands of their own citizens to their deaths, ill equipped and badly led.”
“No amount of threats and propaganda can hide the fact that Ukraine is winning this war. The international community are united, and Russia is becoming a global pariah,” Wallace said.
Putin also reiterated Russia’s goal in its now seven-month-old invasion of Ukraine is to “liberate” Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, saying the people there do not want to be part of Ukraine.
The separatist leaders of the Moscow-controlled parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in the Donbas said Tuesday they are planning to hold votes starting Friday for the territories to declare themselves as part of Russia.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy dismissed what he called “Russia’s attempts to stage new sham referenda.”
“The situation on the front line clearly indicates that the initiative belongs to Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly address Tuesday. “Our positions do not change because of the noise or any announcements somewhere. And we enjoy the full support of our partners in this.”
Referendum voting in the region, populated by many Russian-speaking people, would most likely go in Moscow’s favor.
But any declaration that the territory is part of Russia would not be recognized by either Ukraine or by the United States and its Western allies who have supplied the Kyiv government with billions of dollars in armaments to fend off Moscow’s seven-month invasion.
The White House on Tuesday immediately rejected Russia’s plans for the referendums, saying they may be an effort by Moscow to recruit troops in the region in the wake of its recent defeats on the battlefront.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the referendums violate the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, since the lands in question are part of Ukraine.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said, “Sham referendums have no legitimacy and do not change the nature of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.”
“This is a further escalation in Putin’s war,” he added. “The international community must condemn this blatant violation of international law and step up support for Ukraine.”
If Russia were to claim the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces as its own, it could set the stage for an escalation in the fighting if Ukrainian forces try to take them back.
Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Russia-backed Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine, said the “long-suffering people of the Donbas have earned the right to be part of the great country that they always considered their motherland.”
He said the vote will help “restore historic justice that millions of the Russian people were waiting for.”
Since early September, Kyiv’s forces have swiftly recaptured large swaths of land in the Kharkiv region of northeast Ukraine that Russian troops took over in the early weeks of the war. The Russian-occupied Kherson region of southern Ukraine and the partly occupied Zaporizhzhia region are also voting on becoming part of Russia.