Russian President Vladimir Putin, with his war in Ukraine stalled after a series of embarrassing battlefield defeats, on Wednesday issued a veiled threat of nuclear war with the West and ordered the mobilization of up to 300,000 reserve forces in his country’s first major military call-up since World War II.
Mr. Putin vowed that his talk of a nuclear strike is not “a bluff” as he cast Ukraine, the U.S. and much of Europe as enemies of Russia that are bent on destroying his country’s sovereignty and invading its territory. He issued his grim warning just hours before President Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy savaged the Kremlin in addresses to the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Mr. Putin is not attending the yearly gathering, but his timing was surely intentional. He delivered his seven-minute televised address as multiple world leaders loudly condemned Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“Those who are attempting to blackmail us with nuclear weapons must be aware that the prevailing winds may also turn toward their side,” Mr. Putin said, according to the state-run Tass news agency.
“Russian citizens must be confident: The territorial integrity of our motherland, our independence and freedom will be ensured. Let me stress it again: This will be ensured by all of our available means,” he said.
Despite his unchallenged power over two decades, Mr. Putin made a decision with major domestic and foreign risks. The Kremlin for months had been plainly reluctant to call up more troops for what the regime insists on calling a “special military operation” that was supposed to end quickly and painlessly. Western sanctions have brought hardships and restrictions to the Russian economy, but, so far, the human pain caused by the war has been relegated to the battlefields of Ukraine.
Within hours of the speech, major protests broke out across Russia and hundreds were arrested, according to media reports. Russian defense officials reportedly barred airlines from selling tickets to draft-age men because of fears that scores may flee the country rather than go to war in Ukraine.
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It’s the latest sign that despite Mr. Putin’s effort to suppress news from Ukraine and control the narrative, there is growing unrest across Russia that will put more pressure on the Kremlin. It’s not clear whether that pressure will lead Russia to seek a negotiated end to the fighting or ramp up the violence and possibly even employ a nuclear weapon.
Foreign policy analysts say Mr. Putin’s fiery rhetoric, combined with the gamble of mobilizing reserve troops, could signal that he is growing increasingly desperate and erratic as his troops face down a fierce Ukrainian counteroffensive that has recaptured key cities and pushed some Russian troops back across their border. Western national security officials have long feared that as its invasion falters, Russia could decide to detonate a lower-yield “tactical” nuclear weapon to stave off a humiliating defeat at the hands of Ukraine and its Western backers.
That fear was at the forefront at the U.N. gathering Wednesday. During his speech, Mr. Biden blasted Mr. Putin’s “overt nuclear threats against Europe” and pledged that Washington will continue supporting Ukraine with money and weapons.
“We will stand in solidarity with Ukraine. We will stand in solidarity against Russia’s aggression, period,” Mr. Biden said.
New British Prime Minister Liz Truss told the world body that Mr. Putin was “desperately trying to justify his catastrophic failures” with his latest moves.
“He is doubling down by sending even more reservists to a terrible fate,” she said. “He is desperately trying to claim the mantle of democracy for a regime without human rights or freedoms. And he is making yet more bogus claims and saber-rattling threats.”
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In his own address, Mr. Zelenskyy said Russia’s decision to call up reservists and to stage hastily arranged annexation referenda in occupied parts of eastern Ukraine showed that Moscow isn’t serious about negotiating an end to its nearly 7-month-old war.
Speaking by video to the U.N. General Assembly gathering, Mr. Zelenskyy insisted his country would prevail in repelling Russia’s attack and recovering all Ukrainian territory now under Moscow’s sway. He said Russia should be stripped of its veto power in the U.N. Security Council and called for more economic sanctions and an international tribunal to probe suspected war crimes committed by Russian troops.
Mr. Zelenskyy also took aim at Mr. Putin.
“Ukraine wants peace. Europe wants peace. The world wants peace. And we have seen who is the only one who wants war,” he said. “There is one entity among all U.N. member states who would say now, if he could interrupt my speech, that he’s happy with this war, with his war.”
Mr. Zelenskyy said he expects Russia to press for negotiations as a way to buy more time to fortify its defensive lines in the Donbas and gather more reserve troops at home.
“Russia wants to spend the winter on the occupied territory of Ukraine and prepare forces to attempt a new offensive,” he said. “We cannot agree to a delayed war because it will be harder than the war now. For us, this is a war for life.”
Battlefield losses, sinking morale
Having failed to take Kyiv early in the war and with its forces pushed out of Kharkiv and other key cities, Russia now has a battle plan that hinges on the disputed Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. Russia plans to hold plebiscites in the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, which together make up the Donbas, on the prospect of formally joining Russia.
U.S. officials expected Moscow to use those upcoming votes — which the White House has dubbed a “sham” — as justification for the major military mobilization Mr. Putin announced Wednesday.
Foreign policy analysts say neither the call-up nor Mr. Putin’s nuclear threats should change the West’s strategy of support for Ukraine. They cast the moves as more proof that Russia’s military, despite being widely considered one of the world’s most powerful, has proved remarkably ineffective in combat, with Moscow’s true power lying largely with its massive nuclear stockpile.
“The poor performance of Russia’s military on the battlefield in Ukraine has been an important reminder that any claim to great power status Russia may have is predicated almost entirely on its arsenal of nuclear weapons,” said Simon Miles, an assistant professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.
“Vladimir Putin has tried and failed many a time to break the resolve of Ukraine’s supporters, and his latest threats are no different. It is clear that he is growing more and more aware of how limited his actual military options are in this war,” Mr. Miles said. “What is not clear is what he could hope to accomplish through nuclear weapons use in the first place. It is one thing to make threats. It is another to actually put these weapons to use in a way which serves the Kremlin’s goal.”
The Russian mobilization could provide more manpower for its Donbas campaign, but it’s not clear how effective such a move would be over the long term. Western intelligence officials have said that Russian military morale has plummeted amid Ukraine’s counterattack. Russia has held a massive manpower advantage throughout the war, but that edge has been largely neutralized by superior Ukrainian battlefield tactics and a steady influx of deadly Western weapons.
Russian morale could plummet further after Wednesday’s developments. The Moscow Times reported that more than 500 protesters were arrested across Russia, at least half of them in Moscow.
The Kremlin also was forced to take dramatic action to curb a potential exodus of fighting-age men. Hours after Mr. Putin’s address, the Russian Ministry of Defense barred airlines from selling tickets to men ages 18 to 65, according to the aviation website Airlive.net. Such ticket sales are banned, the website reported, unless the buyer can provide written proof from Russia’s Ministry of Defense showing he is allowed to leave the country.
The dramatic move came after a run on airline tickets to countries such as Turkey and Armenia, which do not require a visa for Russian citizens to enter.
Russia’s tourism agency has publicly denied that any restrictions have been imposed on international travel, according to Reuters.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.