Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilisation of reservists in Russia, in a measure that appeared to be an admission that Moscow's war against Ukraine isn't going according to plan. The Russian leader, in a televised address to the nation, also made what appeared to be a veiled reference to Russia's nuclear capability.
Accusing the West of engaging in "nuclear blackmail," Putin claimed, without identifying anyone specifically, that there had been, "statements of some high-ranking representatives of the leading NATO states about the possibility of using nuclear weapons of mass destruction against Russia."
"To those who allow themselves such statements regarding Russia, I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction. ... And when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal," Putin said. "It's not a bluff."
The move sent some Russians scrambling to buy plane tickets to flee the country.
In Armenia, Sergey arrived with his 17-year-old son, saying they had prepared for such a scenario. Another Russian, Valery, said his wife's family lives in Kyiv, and mobilization is out of the question for him "just for the moral aspect alone." Both men declined to give their last names.
Despite Russia's harsh laws against criticising the military and the war, protesters outraged by the mobilisation overcame their fear of arrest to stage protests in cities across the country. Nearly 1,200 Russians were arrested in anti-war demonstrations in cities including Moscow and St Petersburg, according to the independent Russian human rights group OVD-Info.
Associated Press journalists in Moscow witnessed at least a dozen arrests in the first 15 minutes of a nighttime protest in the capital, with police in heavy body armor tackling demonstrators in front of shops, hauling some away as they chanted, "No to war!"
"I'm not afraid of anything. The most valuable thing that they can take from us is the life of our children. I won't give them life of my child," said one Muscovite, who declined to give her name.
Asked whether protesting would help, she said: "It won't help, but it's my civic duty to express my stance. No to war!"
In Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth-largest city, police hauled onto buses some of the 40 protesters who were detained at an anti-war rally. One woman in a wheelchair shouted, referring to the Russian president: "Goddamn bald-headed 'nut job'. He's going to drop a bomb on us, and we're all still protecting him. I've said enough."
The Vesna opposition movement called for protests, saying: "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 Moscow prosecutor's office warned that organizing or participating in protests could lead to up to 15 years in prison. Authorities have issued similar warnings ahead of other protests. Wednesday's were the first nationwide anti-war protests since the fighting began in late February.
A full-scale mobilisation would likely be unpopular in Russia and could further dent Putin's standing after Russia's recent battlefield losses in Ukraine.
"We are talking about partial mobilisation, that is, only citizens who are currently in the reserve will be subject to conscription, and above all, those who served in the armed forces have a certain military specialty and relevant experience," Putin said in his address.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the total number of reservists to be called up to fight will be 300,000, adding that only those with relevant combat and service experience would be mobilized. He said there are around 25 million people who fit that criteria, but only around 1% of them would be called up.
Shoigu also said 5,937 Russian soldiers had died in the Ukraine conflict so far, a number far lower than Western estimates that Russia has lost tens of thousands.
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