Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered partial mobilization of reservists on Wednesday, taking a risky and highly unpopular move that follows the humiliating setbacks of his troops almost seven months after the invasion of Ukraine.

The first such appointment in Russia since World War II caused tensions with Western Ukraine to mock it as an act of weakness and desperation. The move also saw some Russians trying to buy air tickets from the country, and hundreds of people arrested at anti-war demonstrations across the country.

In his seven-minute television speech, Putin also warned the West that he was not bluffing, using whatever he had at his disposal to protect Russia – an obvious reference to his nuclear arsenal. Earlier, he told the West not to support Russia against the wall and rebuked NATO countries for supplying weapons to Ukraine.

The Kremlin has problems with replenishing its troops in Ukraine, reaching for volunteers. There have even been reports of widespread recruitment in prisons.

The total number of reservists to be called could be as high as 300,000, officials said. However, Putin’s decree to allow partial mobilization, which entered into force immediately, contained few details, raising suspicions that the project could be expanded at any time. It is worth noting that one clause was kept secret.

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Despite strict Russian laws against criticizing the military and war, there have been protests across the country. According to the independent Russian human rights group OVD-Info, over 800 Russians were arrested during anti-war protests in 37 Russian cities, including Moscow and St. Petersburg.

When asked if the protests would help, one from Moscow, who refused to give his name, said: “It won’t help, but it is my civic duty to express my position. Not for the war! “

“Thousands of Russians – our fathers, brothers and husbands – will be thrown into the war meat grinder. What will they die for? What will mothers and children cry for? ” said the opposition movement Vesna, calling for protests.

When there were calls for protest on the Internet, the Moscow prosecutor’s office warned that organizing or participating in such actions could result in a penalty of up to 15 years in prison. Authorities have issued similar warnings against other protests recently. Wednesday was the first nationwide anti-war protest since the beginning of the war in late February.

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US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Putin’s speech was “definitely a sign that he is fighting, and we know it.”

President Joe Biden told the UN General Assembly: “We will be in solidarity against Russian aggression, period.” He said Putin’s new nuclear threats to Europe show a “reckless disregard” of Russia’s commitments as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The order for partial mobilization came the day after the Russian-controlled regions of eastern and southern Ukraine announced plans for referenda to become an integral part of Russia – a move that could eventually allow Moscow to escalate the war. Referenda will begin on Friday in the Lugansk, Kherson and partly Russian-controlled regions of Zaporizhia and Donetsk.

The vote will surely follow Moscow’s path. Foreign leaders already call voting illegal and non-binding. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said they were “appearances” and “noise” to distract the public.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been the subject of widespread international criticism from the UN General Assembly, which maintains strong diplomatic pressure on Moscow. Zelenskiy was to speak at the assembly in a pre-recorded speech later on Wednesday. Putin does not participate.

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Zelensky’s spokesman called mobilization a “great tragedy” for the Russian people.

Putin’s mobilization gambit carries a strong element of risk: it can backfire, making war unpopular at home and damaging his own position. It also acknowledges Russia’s basic military shortcomings.

In his speech, which was much shorter than previous speeches on the war, Putin accused the West of engaging in “nuclear blackmail” and noted “statements by some senior NATO officials about the possible use of nuclear weapons destruction against Russia.”

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“To those who allow themselves to make such statements about Russia, I would like 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 nation, we will certainly use all means at our disposal” Putin said, adding: “This is not a bluff.”

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