President Vladimir Putin called up Russian military reservists on Wednesday, saying his pledge to use all military assets in Ukraine was “no bluff” and hinting that Moscow was ready to use nuclear weapons.
His call for mobilization comes as Moscow-controlled regions of Ukraine prepare to hold referendums on annexation this week, sharply raising the stakes in the seven-month conflict, allowing Moscow to accuse Ukraine of invading Russian territory.
Ukraine’s four Russian-occupied regions — Donetsk and Luhansk in the east and Kherson and Zaporozhye in the south — said Tuesday they would hold votes over five days starting Friday.
The Russian leader announced a partial military mobilization, and Defense Minister Siarhei Shaigu told state television that about 300,000 reservists would be called up.
“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all available means to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff,” Putin said.
But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an interview with German media group Bild published on Wednesday that he does not think Putin will resort to nuclear weapons.
Imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny said it would lead to “a great tragedy, to a large number of deaths.”
In connection with their statements, flights to neighboring countries of the former USSR were booked several days in advance, airline data showed, in what appeared to be a rush to leave the country. Prices for the remaining seats have skyrocketed.
During a large-scale Ukrainian counteroffensive in recent weeks, Kiev forces have retaken hundreds of towns and villages that had been controlled by Russia for months.
– “Wake up, finally” –
63-year-old Svetlana gathered with friends to watch neighbors and municipal workers sort through the garbage, called on the region’s neighbors from Russia to ignore the mobilization and “finally wake up.”
“What do they want to free us from? From home? From relatives? From friends? From what else?” she told AFP. “They want to free us from the living?”
As in 2014, Washington, Berlin and Paris condemned the latest election, saying the international community would never recognize the results.
“It’s irresponsible rhetoric for a nuclear power to talk like that. But it’s out of character for the way he’s been talking for the last seven months, and we take it very seriously,” John Kirby, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, told ABC’s OK. Morning America.”
“Tomorrow Putin can say – like Ukraine, we want to be part of Poland, otherwise we will use nuclear weapons. We cannot make these compromises,” he said.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemned Putin’s “dangerous and reckless nuclear rhetoric.”
“Putin’s announcement of sham referendums, partial military mobilization and nuclear blackmail is a serious escalation,” Borel wrote on Twitter.
Kyiv has said the referendums are meaningless and has vowed to “eliminate” threats from Russia, saying its forces will continue to retake the territory regardless of what Moscow or its proxies say.
Europe’s largest nuclear facility, located in Russian-controlled territory, has become a hot spot for concern after each reported attacks there.