Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization of reservists in Russia on Wednesday, risking a deeply unpopular step that follows a string of humiliating setbacks for his troops nearly seven months after invading Ukraine.
It’s the first mobilization in Russia since World War II and is sure to further fuel tensions with the Western backers of Ukraine, who derided the move as an act of weakness. The move also sent Russians scrambling to buy plane tickets out of the country.
The Russian leader, in a seven-minute televised address to the nation aired on Wednesday morning, also warned the West that he isn't bluffing over using all the means at his disposal to protect Russia's territory, in what appeared to be a veiled reference to Russia’s nuclear capability. Putin has previously warned the West not to back Russia against the wall and has rebuked NATO countries for supplying weapons to help Ukraine.
The total number of reservists to be called up could be as high as 300,000, officials said.
Even a partial mobilization is likely to increase dismay, or sow doubt, among Russians about the war in Ukraine. Shortly after Putin’s address, Russian media reported a sharp spike in demand for plane tickets abroad amid an apparent scramble to leave despite exorbitant prices for flights.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who was asked what had changed since he and others previously said no mobilization was planned, argued that Russia is effectively fighting against a combined potential of NATO because the alliance’s members have been supplying weapons to Kyiv.
Only those with relevant combat and service experience will be mobilized, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said. He added that there are around 25 million people who fit this criteria, but only around 1% of them will be mobilized.
Another clause in the decree prevents most professional soldiers from terminating their contracts and leaving service until the partial mobilization is no longer in place.
Putin's announcement came against the backdrop of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, where Moscow's invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 has been the target of broad international criticism that has kept up intense diplomatic pressure on Moscow.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskky is due to address the gathering in a prerecorded address on Wednesday. Putin didn't travel to New York.
Putin's gambit has a strong element of risk — it could backfire, by making the Ukraine war unpopular at home and hurting his own standing, and it exposes Russia's underlying military shortcomings.
A Ukraine counteroffensive launched this month has snatched the military initiative away from Russia, as well as capturing large areas the Russians once held. The swiftness of the counteroffensive saw Russian forces abandon armored vehicles and other weapons as they beat hasty retreats.
A spokesman for Zelenskyy called the mobilization a “big tragedy” for the Russian people.
In a statement to The Associated Press, Sergii Nikiforov said conscripts sent to the front line in Ukraine would face a similar fate as ill-prepared Russian forces who were repelled in an attack on Kyiv in the first days of the invasion last February.
“This is a recognition of the incapacity of the Russian professional army, which has failed in all its tasks,” Nikiforov said.
The mobilization is unlikely to bring any consequences on the battlefield for months because of a lack of training facilities and equipment.
The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Bridget Brink, tweeted that the mobilization is a sign "of weakness, of Russian failure.”
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace echoed that assessment, describing Putin's move as “an admission that his invasion is failing