Putin raises stakes in war, with direct challenge to the West

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin sped up the war effort in Ukraine on Wednesday, announcing a call for some 300,000 reservists for the army, while directly challenging the West for its support for Ukraine with a veiled threat to use nuclear weapons.

In a rare speech to the nation, Putin said he was prepared to declare four Ukrainian territories as part of Russia as early as next week, although some of those territories are still occupied by Russian forces. Ukrainian control. And he framed the war he launched seven months ago in existential terms against Russia, emphasizing that the country was only defending itself against a mortal threat to its “sovereignty” and that the West is seeking to “weak, divide and ultimately destroy our country. “

“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people,” he said. “This is not a hoax.”

Taken together, Putin’s speech laid out the Kremlin’s strategy of continuing to advance its advantage in the war, despite the humiliating defeats Russia’s military has suffered on the battlefield and a potential public backlash in Russia. Protests against mobilization and arrests have been reported in dozens of cities.

The speech also suggested that even as Putin is mobilizing more troops, his broader aim is to startle the United States and its European allies into giving up their support for Ukraine or forcing the president to Volodymyr Zelensky negotiates a peace agreement that Moscow can accept.

“You have the feeling now that he can do anything, and this is his strategic potential,” said Gleb O. Pavlovsky, a Moscow-based political analyst and former adviser. Putin, said in a phone interview. “He’s using this strategic potential because he doesn’t have another.”

The Russian occupation authorities in four regions of Ukraine announced on Tuesday that they will hold referendums on Russia’s annexation, laying the groundwork for Mr. Putin’s escalation. In a speech on Wednesday, he said he would support the outcome, potentially redefining the territory as part of Russia, while justifying the troop mobilization as a matter of self-defence.

But if Putin’s aim is to change the terms of the war so profoundly that it shakes Ukraine and its allies, there is no immediate evidence that it is working.

In Kyiv, Mr. Zelensky told A German newspaper responded to Putin’s speech that the Russian president wanted to “sink Ukraine in blood” and that he would only negotiate “if they leave our territory.” Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, said in an interview with The New York Times that the situation was “dangerous,” but that Russia’s status as a nuclear power would not “change what we are doing.”

At the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Wednesday, President Biden stressed that “we will stand united against Russian aggression” and said Putin was making “irresponsible nuclear threats”. .” He added later, “This war is to stamp out Ukraine’s right to exist as a state.”

In Russia, the announcement of a major call pushed the Kremlin into an uncharted political predicament. So far, the government has managed to assure ordinary Russians that they can go on with their lives, treating the war as nothing more than a “special military operation” and insisting that no one is harmed. forced to fight in Ukraine against his will.

But this month’s astonishing counterattack by Ukrainian forces, in which Kyiv recaptured more than a thousand square miles of territory, appears to have changed that calculus. Mr Putin appeared unexpectedly on his hind legs, under criticism from some of his supporters on national television, who claimed he was not waging war decisively enough. And the fact that Russia lacks enough combat personnel in Ukraine to gain or even hold the territory – as Western analysts and officials have asserted for months – becomes unmistakable.

In response, Mr. Putin first announced on Wednesday that Russian civilians could be forced to serve in Ukraine. Clearly wanting to avoid public backlash, the Russian leader stressed that the new draft was only a “partial deployment” and that only men with military experience would receive orders to report the mission.

Putin said that Russia’s goals in Ukraine have not changed and the move is “necessary and urgent” because the West has “crossed all boundaries” by supplying Ukraine with sophisticated weapons.

In subsequent statements, the Russian Defense Minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, put the number of potential new callers at 300,000. He said university students would not be subject to draft and that young conscripts serving a year of compulsory military service in Russia would not be sent to the front lines.

However, the official order stating the calls is much more vague, leaving open the possibility that the government may later expand the draft.

In Russia, news of the protest spurred protests across the country; More than 1,200 from 38 cities have been detained, according to OVD-Info, a human rights watchdog that monitors police activity. In Moscow, hundreds of protesters gathered on the Old Arbat, a pedestrian street in the city centre, shouting “Put Putin into the trenches!” and “Let our children live!”

Some Russians rushed to buy plane tickets to leave the country, and the messaging app Telegram was filled with messages about the border situation and possible ways to leave the country.

The responses underscored the risks Mr. Putin takes in escalating a war that takes heavy casualties on the Russians and increasingly violates his unspoken agreement with the public: that the Russians stand. outside politics and the Kremlin to live their lives. Mr. Putin has succeeded in curbing dissent since the start of the war, with new censorship laws and a series of arrests, but analysts say the main reason he has long been avoided declaring the draft for fear of public backlash.

“This is crossing a red line,” said Pavlovsky, a former adviser to Putin. “In a sense, it would be a breach of contract with the Putin majority.”

Military analysts say the draft will not have immediate consequences on the battlefield as Russia will take weeks, if not months, to mobilize, train and retrofit its ready-made troops. ready to fight. The move could start to address Russia’s manpower shortage, in part because it would ban troops from the United States, said Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at the CNA Institute for Defense Studies in Arlington, Va. Current employee quits job.

Mr. Putin also this week sought to regain the initiative by setting the stage for claiming more territory in Ukraine. Russia’s occupying government in Ukraine said it would hold a five-day “referendum” starting Friday on joining Russia, a prelude to annexation.

“Russia cannot give up on the people living near the executions being torn to pieces and not responding to their desire to decide their own fate,” Putin said, referring to Ukrainians in the occupied territory, right away. even as reports continue to emerge of torture and murder by the Russian occupation forces.

Pro-Kremlin analysts and officials say that after the annexation, Moscow could declare that any further Ukrainian military action on those territories is an attack on Russia itself. , giving Putin reason to retaliate. He did not explicitly threaten a nuclear response, but warned that he was prepared to use all the weapons in Russia’s arsenal to defend what the Kremlin considers Russian territory.

“An attack on people and territory would be an attack on Russia,” said a senior Russian lawmaker, Konstantin I. Kosachev, posted on social media, warning the West to “stop playing the military game with a nuclear state.”

Western officials have condemned the planned referendums as “fake” votes, and Ukrainian officials have described them as a red line that then negotiating with Russia will not can be performed.

But there are still some signs that Mr. Putin is ready for a negotiated withdrawal from the war.

Hours after his speech, officials in Kyiv announced that Russia had freed 215 Ukrainians in a prisoner exchange, including two top Azov Battalion commanders and more than 100 soldiers. Another soldier had participated in Mariupol’s last ditch defense earlier. fell into the hands of the Russians in May – fighters who are considered national heroes in Ukraine. Saudi Arabia has separately announced an exchange aimed at securing the release of 10 prisoners held by Russia, including US and British citizens.

Andrei Kortunov, director general of the Russian Council of International Affairs, a think-tank close to the Russian government, said in a phone interview that he did not expect Putin to use nuclear weapons. in Ukraine as long as NATO does not directly attack Russia. Doing so would not confer a significant battlefield advantage over conventional weapons, he said, while “the political risks associated with this are very high”.

Mr. Kortunov said that Putin’s goal now is to pressure the West, not Ukraine, to agree to some kind of peace deal.

“This means that there is no hope of political dialogue with Kyiv,” Kortunov said of Putin’s plan to annex more Ukraine. “If there is any dialogue, it will be with the West, not with Kyiv.”

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