Russians took to the streets – and to the skies – on Wednesday to oppose Vladimir Putin’s call-up order sending reservists to fight in Ukraine as his threats of nuclear war escalated.
The order – which would launch 300,000 more troops into the increasingly desperate fight – sparked a wave of protests across Russia and a race for one-way tickets out of the country.
The mobilization was accompanied by chilling threats to defend Russian territory with nuclear weapons, as the Kremlin planned to call a quarter of Ukraine part of Russia.
“I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction,” Putin said in a televised address Wednesday morning. “When the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all means at our disposal.”
With an icy stare at the camera, the Russian strongman added: “It’s not a bluff.”
Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia’s “territorial integrity” comes as his puppet regimes in Ukraine prepare to declare occupied parts of that country Russian territory.
Four referendums are scheduled this week for Ukraine’s occupied provinces – Lugansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson – to declare those provinces part of Russia.
Such a vote would make the territories an “irreversible” addition to the country, allowing Moscow to use “all means” to defend them, Dmitry Medvedev, head of the Kremlin Security Council, said this week.
“Encroachment on Russian territory is a crime that allows the use of all self-defense forces,” Medvedev added on the Telegram messaging app.
The votes, which were due to begin on Friday, have already been declared illegitimate by Ukraine and its Western allies.
Russia’s use of so-called screening camps to relocate Ukrainians to occupied territories – and the alleged use of torture, captivity and extrajudicial executions against those it suspects of supporting or aiding Kyiv – undermines the idea that any referendum held in an occupied territory could reflect the will of the people.
President Biden responded to Putin’s comments on Wednesday during his address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
“This war is about extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state, plain and simple, and Ukraine’s right to exist as a people,” Biden said. “Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you believe, that…should make your blood run cold.
He lambasted the Russian leader for “making irresponsible nuclear threats”, adding that a “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”.
Putin’s announcements have caused panic in Russia, with a wave of protests erupting across the country.
On Wednesday evening, more than 1,300 Russians were arrested for protesting the mobilization order, Russian police watchdog OVD-Info said. Anti-war protests are illegal under Russia’s draconian anti-protest laws that prohibit the spread of so-called false information about the military.
The first protests took place in Siberia in the Russian Far East, according to the Moscow Times. Most of the Russian forces sent to Ukraine so far have been withdrawn from remote rural parts of Russia and satellite states, in an apparent effort to shield Russia’s middle class from the costs of the conflict.
A massive mobilization of troops was seen as such a political minefield that Russian oligarch and Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin attempted to recruit prisoners to fight in Ukraine – with little success.
Prigozhin, who is widely believed to be the money behind Russia’s brutal Wagner Group mercenaries, was seen in a leaked video last week trying to recruit inmates at a penal colony in Russia’s Mari El region.
“Our information indicates that Wagner suffered heavy casualties in Ukraine, particularly and unsurprisingly among young and inexperienced fighters,” a senior US defense official told Reuters when asked about the video.
In the footage, a man can be heard telling detainees that those who survive a six-month tour of Ukraine will be granted clemency. Deserters, the man said, would be shot on the spot.
Ordinary Russians rushed to airports on Wednesday, where the price of one-way tickets from Russia skyrocketed.
Tickets from Moscow to Belgrade, Serbia, have sold out, as have flights to destinations in Turkey, Georgia and Armenia, according to the Belgrade-based anti-war group “Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians and Serbs together against the war”.
“All the Russians who wanted to go to war have already been there,” the group tweeted. “Nobody else wants to go!”
Additional reporting by Emily Crane and Wires
New York Post