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Putin drafts up to 300,000 reservists, backs annexation amid war losses

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sept. 21 ordered a partial military mobilization, as Moscow's troops battle a Ukrainian counteroffensive. (Video: Reuters)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a partial military mobilization Wednesday to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine, including the recent humiliating retreat from the northeastern Kharkiv region.

In a national address broadcast Wednesday morning, Putin lashed out at the West, voiced his support for staged referendums that are being planned as a precursor to annexation of occupied areas of Ukraine, and hinted ominously that he was ready to use nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory — as he defines it.

“In the face of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal,” Putin warned. “This is not a bluff,” he said, in a clear reference to Russia’s nuclear capabilities.

“I will emphasize this again: with all the means at our disposal,” he added.

Russia’s faltering military performance in Ukraine leaves Moscow relying on its nuclear arsenal to affirm its status as a global power. Brimming with resentment and anger, Putin called the war an effort by Western elites to destroy and dismember Russia, framing it as a confrontation between Moscow and NATO countries.

Those comments were reinforced in a separate address by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, although Western leaders — including President Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz — urged Putin not to invade and have put limits on military support for Ukraine to signal that their nations are not in direct conflict with Russia.

The plans to stage referendums from Friday to Tuesday in four occupied regions of eastern and southern Ukraine — Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson — pave the way for their illegal annexation by Russia, a step that will be rejected globally. But it could be used by Russia to claim that Ukraine’s attacks to liberate its own territory amount to attacks on Russia itself.

Russia moves toward annexing Ukraine regions in a major escalation

Putin’s blunt, uncompromising rhetoric underscored his growing international isolation. The war has dominated discussions at the annual U.N. General Assembly in New York, where world leaders condemned the violence and lamented the global hardship caused by soaring food and energy prices.

The referendums being staged by Kremlin proxies have been dismissed by many Western officials, including Biden, as “sham” votes.

Biden decried Putin’s “brutal, needless war” in his speech to the United Nations on Wednesday, urging world leaders to continue to hold Russia accountable for trying to extinguish “Ukraine’s right to exist as a state.”

By organizing the sham referendums, Biden said, Russia had “shamelessly violated the core tenets of the United Nations charter.”

British Prime Minister Liz Truss and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio made similar comments, and there was a chorus of outcry from leaders in response to Putin’s mobilization order and his veiled threat of a nuclear strike.

“Russia cannot win this criminal war,” Scholz told reporters in New York. Scholz said the referendums and call-up of reservists were an “act of desperation.”

National security adviser Jake Sullivan on Sept. 20 said that the United States would “never recognize” Russian annexed territories in Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post)

But Putin’s isolation has done nothing to moderate his position, and he has leveraged the condemnation of world leaders to try to convince Russians that the West is out to get them.

Slamming “aggressive” Western elites and their “pseudo-values,” Putin accused them of trying to orchestrate a Soviet-style collapse of Russia.

“The purpose of the West is to weaken, divide and ultimately destroy our country,” he said in a speech clearly aimed at shifting public ambivalence into stronger national support for the war effort.

“They made total Russophobia their weapon, including for decades purposefully cultivating hatred for Russia,” he went on, adding that the West was using Ukraine as an “anti-Russian beachhead.”

Putin reiterated his false claims that Russia is eliminating “Nazis” from eastern Ukraine; repeated his denunciation of Ukraine’s democratically elected government, led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, as a “Nazi regime”; and made sweeping assertions, without evidence, that residents in occupied parts of Ukraine were loyal to Russia.

By mobilizing reservists, Putin bowed to intense pressure from pro-war hawks, taking a path likely to be deeply unpopular in Russia.

To this point, the burden of fighting has fallen mainly on contract soldiers from Russia’s most impoverished regions, many of whom joined up because of a lack of employment opportunities or to get out of debt.

Now, for the first time, the war will seriously disrupt the lives of large numbers of men in major cities, where the potential for antiwar backlash is highest.

Thousands of people protested across Russia on Wednesday despite draconian laws against public demonstrations, and more than 1,300 were arrested, according to the human rights group OVD-Info. Most of the arrests were in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In several police stations, OVD-Info said, detained protesters were handed military summonses to fight in Ukraine.

On Moscow’s Old Arbat street, protesters chanted “No to war” before riot police broke up the demonstration and dragged people to waiting police vans. In St. Petersburg, near St. Isaac’s Cathedral, police beat some protesters with truncheons, the rights group reported.

Putin’s speech was also met with renewed pledges from Ukrainian officials to reclaim all territory occupied by Russian forces.

Zelensky said that he doubted Putin would use a nuclear weapon but that the threat could not be ruled out. “We cannot look into this person’s head; there are risks,” he told the German newspaper Bild. Putin announced the partial mobilization because “he sees that his units are simply running away,” Zelensky said. “He wants to drown Ukraine in blood, but also in the blood of his own soldiers.”

The pivot to swift referendums, annexation and partial mobilization was an implicit admission by the Kremlin of the failures and setbacks in its war effort. As recently as Friday, Putin had said no changes were needed.

“No, the plan is not subject to correction,” he told journalists in Uzbekistan at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where he faced “questions and concerns” about the war from his most powerful ally, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and a public rebuke from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Kharkiv children went to summer camp in Russia. They never came back.

In his decree Wednesday, Putin stopped short of a full mobilization, which would entail a national draft, and he did not rebrand his “special military operation” as a war.

But in a sign of growing public panic, plane tickets out of Russia were selling fast Wednesday, with many flights fully booked. A recent recruitment drive failed to turn the tide of the war, underscoring the unease in the country about rising casualties.

Shoigu on Wednesday announced new government casualty figures, including 5,937 dead. Western estimates put Russia’s death toll much higher — in July, CIA Director William J. Burns estimated that 15,000 Russian soldiers had already been killed and some 45,000 wounded.

The Russian news outlet Mediazona and the BBC Russian service say at least 6,200 Russian service members have died, citing open-source materials such as social media posts, official announcements and obituaries.

The call-up of reservists will bring the grim reality of the war home to millions more Russians whose family members may now have to fight. And military analysts question the short-term benefits, saying it is unclear whether Russia is capable of training and quartering hundreds of thousands of new troops, given how much of its military resources are tied up in Ukraine and the significant losses it has taken in its officer corps.

Russia is thought to have invaded Ukraine with about 150,000 troops in late February.

A Russian state official told The Washington Post that 300,000 reservists would be enough to buy time and “hold the line,” but not to mount new offensives. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues, said the Kremlin still hopes that Western support for Ukraine will crumble over the winter, forcing Kyiv to capitulate.

“It is clear that for both sides, the conflict is existential,” the official said. “All will depend on the decisiveness of the West after the winter. After the winter, the West may not be so united.” He expressed optimism that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, France’s Macron and Germany’s Scholz will press Kyiv to accept a cease-fire, freezing the existing front line.

Ukraine looms over the U.N.’s annual gabfest

With Russia’s conventional army facing a manpower problem and repeated failures, Moscow has enlisted prisoners, some sent into battle with just a week’s training.

Military summonses were sent out in recent days, even before Putin’s speech. On Tuesday, Russia’s State Duma, the lower house of parliament, adopted legislation to toughen punishments for soldiers deserting, surrendering or refusing to fight, after many enlisted soldiers repudiated their contracts in recent months.

Putin’s decree now extends such contracts indefinitely.

Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia; Rick Noack in Paris; Emily Rauhala in Brussels; and David Stern in Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.