Putin orders partial military call, sparking protests

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KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered a partial mobilization of reservists, taking a risky and deeply unpopular step that follows humiliating setbacks for his troops nearly seven months after invading Ukraine.

Russia’s first such call since World War II has heightened tensions with Western supporters of Ukraine, who have called it an act of weakness and desperation. The move also prompted some Russians to rush to buy plane tickets out of the country, and hundreds of people were arrested during anti-war protests across the country.

In his seven-minute nationally televised address, Putin also warned the West that he was not bluffing by using everything at his disposal to protect Russia – an apparent reference to its nuclear arsenal. He has already told the West not to support Russia against the wall and chastised NATO countries for supplying arms to Ukraine.

The Kremlin has struggled to replenish its troops in Ukraine, seeking volunteers. There have even been reports of widespread recruitment into prisons.

The total number of reservists to be called up could reach 300,000, officials said. However, Putin’s decree authorizing the partial mobilization, which took effect immediately, provided few details, raising suspicions that the project could be expanded at any time. In particular, one clause was kept secret.

Despite Russia’s tough laws against criticism of the military and war, protests have taken place across the country. More than 800 Russians have been arrested during anti-war protests in 37 Russian cities, including Moscow and St. Petersburg, according to independent Russian human rights group OVD-Info.

An Associated Press team in Moscow witnessed at least a dozen arrests in the first 15 minutes of a protest in the capital.

Asked if protesting would help, a Muscovite who declined to give his name replied: “It won’t help, but it’s my civic duty to express my position. No to war!”

“Thousands of Russian men – our fathers, our brothers and our husbands – will be thrown into the meat grinder of war. What will they die for? Why will mothers and children cry? opposition Vesna, calling for demonstrations.

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As protest calls circulated online, the Moscow prosecutor’s office warned that organizing or participating in such actions could result in up to 15 years in prison. Authorities have issued similar warnings ahead of other protests recently. Wednesday’s demonstrations were the first nationwide anti-war demonstrations since the war began in late February.

The state communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, also warned media outlets that access to their websites would be blocked if “false information” about the mobilization was transmitted. We didn’t know exactly what that meant.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov asked what had changed since he and others previously said no mobilization was planned, said Russia was effectively fighting NATO because members of the alliance had supplied arms to Kyiv.

Western leaders said the mobilization was a response to Russia’s recent battlefield losses in Ukraine.

US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Putin’s speech was “certainly a sign that he was struggling, and we know that.”

President Joe Biden told the United Nations General Assembly: “We will stand together against Russian aggression, period.” He said Putin’s new nuclear threats against Europe showed a “reckless disregard” for Russia’s responsibilities as a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

The partial mobilization order came a day after Russian-controlled regions in eastern and southern Ukraine announced plans for referendums to become part of Russia – a move that could eventually allow in Moscow to escalate the war. Referendums will begin on Friday in the regions of Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk, partly controlled by Russia.

The poll is almost certain to go Moscow’s way. Foreign leaders are already calling the votes illegitimate and non-binding. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said it was a “sham” and “noise” to distract the public.

Kirby told ABC’s “Good Morning America” ​​that Russia had suffered tens of thousands of casualties, had command and control issues, terrible troop morale, desertion issues, and was “forcing the wounded to return (to) combat”.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who also spoke on Russian television on Wednesday, said 5,937 Russian soldiers had died in the conflict, far fewer than Western estimates.

Shoigu said only those with relevant combat and service experience will be drafted, adding that about 25 million people meet these criteria, but only 1 percent of them will be drafted.

It was not clear how many years of combat experience or what level of training those to be mobilized had to have. Another key clause in the executive order prevents most professional soldiers from terminating their contract and leaving the service until partial mobilization is no longer in place.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been the target of much international criticism at the UN General Assembly, which maintained intense diplomatic pressure on Moscow. Zelenskyy was scheduled to speak at the rally in a pre-recorded address later Wednesday. Putin is not present.

A spokesperson for Zelenskyy called the mobilization a “great tragedy” for the Russian people.

Putin’s mobilization ploy carries a strong element of risk: it could backfire by making the war unpopular at home and damaging his own position. He also admits Russia’s underlying military shortcomings.

A Ukrainian counteroffensive this month seized Russia’s military initiative and captured large areas in Ukraine that the Russians once held.

In a statement to The Associated Press, Ukrainian presidential spokesman Sergii Nikiforov said conscripts sent to Ukraine would meet the same fate as ill-prepared Russian forces that unsuccessfully tried to take Kyiv at the start of the war.

“It is a recognition of the inability of the Russian professional army, which has failed in all its tasks,” Nikiforov said.

Russian mobilization is unlikely to produce battlefield consequences for months due to a lack of facilities and training equipment.

Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said it looked like “an act of desperation”. He predicted that the Russians would resist mobilization through “passive sabotage”.

“People are going to escape this mobilization in any way possible, bribe their way out of this mobilization, leave the country,” Oreshkin told the AP.

He described the announcement as “a huge personal blow to Russian citizens, who until recently (were taking part in hostilities) happily sitting on their sofas, (watching) television. And now the war has entered their house.

The war in Ukraine, which killed thousands, drove up food prices around the world and caused energy prices to soar. It also raised fears of a potential nuclear disaster at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine, now occupied by Russia. Investigations are also underway on possible war crimes atrocities committed by Moscow forces.

In his address, which was much shorter than previous speeches on the war, Putin accused the West of engaging in “nuclear blackmail” and noted “statements by some high-ranking representatives of key NATO states on the possibility of using mass nuclear weapons”. destruction against Russia.

He did not specify.

“To those who allow themselves such statements regarding Russia, I would like 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, “This is not a bluff.”

In a speech hours later in Novgorod marking 1,160 years of Russian statehood, Putin hailed the “heroes” fighting in Ukraine and stressed the “colossal responsibility” to protect the nation’s sovereignty.

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Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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