Putin said in a speech Wednesday that he would use “all the means at our disposal,” and threatened the use of nuclear weapons, if he deemed the “territorial integrity” of Russia to be jeopardized.
The mobilization means citizens who are in the reserve could be called up, and those with military experience would be subject to conscription, Putin said, adding that the necessary decree had already been signed and took effect on Wednesday.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Russian television Wednesday morning that the country will call up 300,000 reservists. “These are not some people who have never heard of the army,” Shoigu said. “These are those who have served, have a military registration specialty, have had military experience.”
“Our country also has various means of destruction and in some components more modern than those of the NATO countries, and if the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people,” Putin said in his speech Wednesday indicating a possible new chapter in the months-long conflict.
Addressing the potential for escalation and use of nuclear weapons, Putin said: “Those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the prevailing winds can turn in their direction.”
The announcement comes as Russia is believed to face shortages of manpower and follows amendments to Russia’s law on military service made Tuesday, which raise the penalties for resistance related to military service or coercion to violate an official military order during a period of mobilization or martial law.
“They are already saying directly that they were able to split the Soviet Union in 1991 and now the time has come for Russia to break up into a multitude of regions and areas which are fatally hostile to each other,” Putin said.
But NATO leaders dismissed the announcement as a sign of panic in the Kremlin, and reaffirmed their commitment to supporting Ukraine’s military.
“Russia cannot win this war. But this is a kind of panic reaction,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Wednesday.
And British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace added: “No amount of threats and propaganda can hide the fact that Ukraine is winning this war, the international community are united and Russia is becoming a global pariah.”
The referendums, which Putin backed during his speech Wednesday, could pave the way for Russian annexation of the areas, allowing Moscow to frame the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive there as an attack on Russia itself, thereby providing Moscow with a pretext to escalate its military response.
In what appeared to be a coordinated announcement, Russian-appointed leaders in the occupied regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia and the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic all said they planned to hold “votes” beginning on September 23.
Together the four regions that have announced their referendum plans make up around 18% of Ukraine’s territory. Russia does not control any of the four in their entirety.
The expected referendums, which run counter to international law upholding Ukraine’s sovereignty, have been announced as world leaders have descended on New York for a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, where the war and it impacts were already poised to loom large.
US Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget A. Brink wrote on Twitter Wednesday that “sham referenda and mobilization are signs of weakness, of Russian failure. The United States will never recognize Russia’s claim to purportedly annexed Ukrainian territory, and we will continue to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes.”
Putin on Wednesday said Russia has been asked for support from the two “people’s republics” and the regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia for the referendums and had pledged to do “everything to ensure the safe conditions for people to express their will.”
Potential for escalation
The announcements had already received swift support from Russian politicians. Former Russian President and vice-chairman of Russia’s National Security Council Dmitry Medvedev has publicly endorsed referendums in the self-declared Donbas republics, saying this would have “huge significance” for “systemic protection” of the residents.
“Encroachment on Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self-defense,” Medvedev said on his Telegram channel, in an apparent allusion to the potential for the military escalation.
“Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. You will change the face of war unlike anything since World War II,” Biden said, adding that the US response to such actions would be “consequential.”
The bill sets a jail term of up to 15 years for resistance related to military service or coercion to violate an official military order, involving violence or the threat of its use, during the period of mobilization or martial law.
Josh Pennington, Uliana Pavlova and CNN’s Jennifer Hansler, Anna Chernova and Tim Lister contributed to this report.