Russia Putin

In this image made from video released by the Russian Presidential Press Service, Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022.

KYIV, Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization of reservists Wednesday, taking a risky and deeply unpopular step that follows humiliating setbacks for his troops nearly seven months after invading Ukraine.

The first such call-up in Russia since World War II is sure to further fuel tensions with the Western backers of Ukraine, who derided it as an act of weakness and desperation. The move also sent some Russians scrambling to buy plane tickets out of the country and reportedly sparked some demonstrations.

The Kremlin has struggled to replenish its troops in Ukraine, reaching out for volunteers. There even have been reports of widespread recruitment in prisons.

In his seven-minute nationally televised address, Putin also warned the West he isn’t bluffing over using everything at his disposal to protect Russia — an apparent reference to his nuclear arsenal. He has previously told the West not to back Russia against the wall and has rebuked NATO countries for supplying weapons to Ukraine.

The total number of reservists to be called up could be as high as 300,000, officials said. However, Putin’s decree authorizing the partial mobilization that took effect immediately offered few details, raising suspicions that the draft could be broadened at any moment. Notably, one clause was kept secret.

Even a partial mobilization is likely to increase dismay or doubt among Russians about the war. Shortly after Putin’s address, Russian media reported a spike in demand for plane tickets abroad amid an apparent scramble to leave despite exorbitant prices.

The Vesna opposition movement called for nationwide protests, although it was unclear how many would act, given Russia’s harsh laws against criticizing the military and the war.

“Thousands of Russian men — our fathers, brothers and husbands — will be thrown into the meat grinder of the war. What will they be dying for? What will mothers and children be crying for?” the group said.

Avtozak, a Russian group that monitors protests, reported demonstrations by dozens of people in cities, including Ulan-Ude and Tomsk in Siberia, and Khabarovsk in the Far East, with some arrests.

As protest calls circulated online, the Moscow prosecutor’s office warned that organizing or participating in such actions could lead to up to 15 years in prison. Authorities issued similar warnings ahead of other protests recently. The state communication watchdog Roskomnadzor also warned media that access to their websites would be blocked for transmitting “false information” about the mobilization. It was unclear exactly what that meant.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, asked what had changed since he and others previously said no mobilization was planned, said Russia is effectively fighting NATO because the alliance’s members have supplied weapons to Kyiv.

The partial mobilization order came a day after Russian-controlled regions in eastern and southern Ukraine announced plans for referendums on becoming integral parts of Russia — a move that could eventually allow Moscow to escalate the war. The referendums will start Friday in the Luhansk, Kherson and partly Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions.

The balloting is all but certain to go Moscow’s way. Foreign leaders are already calling the votes illegitimate and nonbinding. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said they were a “sham” and “noise” to distract the public.

U.S. national security council spokesperson John Kirby said Putin’s speech is “definitely a sign that he’s struggling, and we know that.”

Added White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on MSNBC: “It’s all because Russia is losing ground on the battlefield.”

Kirby told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that Russia has suffered tens of thousands of casualties, has command and control issues, terrible troop morale, desertion problems and is “forcing the wounded back (into) the fight.”

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