By KARL RITTER
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — 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 call-up 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.
It comes after Russian authorities tried to recruit more fighters into volunteer battalions and amid reports of widespread recruitment in prisons, as the Kremlin has struggled to replenish its troops.
The Russian leader, in a seven-minute televised address to the nation aired 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 NATO because the alliance’s members have been supplying weapons to Kyiv.
The partial mobilization order came a day after Russian-controlled regions in eastern and southern Ukraine announced plans to hold votes on becoming integral parts of Russia — a move that could set the stage for Moscow to escalate the war. The referendums will start Friday in the Luhansk, Kherson and partly Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions.