Putin boosts troops, issues nuclear threat

·3-min read

President Vladimir Putin has ordered Russia's first mobilisation since World War II and backed a plan to annex swathes of Ukraine, warning the West he's not bluffing when he says he's ready to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia.

In the biggest escalation of the Ukraine war since Moscow's February 24 invasion, Putin explicitly raised the spectre of a nuclear conflict, approved a plan to annex a chunk of territory from Ukraine the size of Hungary, and called up 300,000 reservists.

"If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will without doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people - this is not a bluff," Putin said in a televised address to the nation on Wednesday.

Putin said, without providing detailed evidence, that the West was plotting to destroy Russia, engaging in "nuclear blackmail" by allegedly discussing the potential use of nuclear weapons against Moscow.

He accused the US, the European Union and Britain of encouraging Ukraine to push military operations into Russia itself.

"In its aggressive anti-Russian policy, the West has crossed every line," Putin said. "This is not a bluff. And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weathervane can turn and point towards them."

The address followed a critical Russian battlefield defeat in northeastern Ukraine and showed Putin was doubling down on what he calls his "special military operation".

In essence, Putin is betting that by increasing the risk of a direct confrontation between the US-led NATO military alliance and Russia - a step towards World War III - the West will blink over its support for Ukraine, something it has shown no sign of doing so far.

Putin signed a decree on partially mobilising Russia's reserves.

Speaking shortly after Putin, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that Russia would draft some 300,000 additional personnel out of some 25 million potential fighters at Moscow's disposal.

The mobilisation, the first since the Soviet Union battled Nazi Germany in World War II, begins immediately.

Such a move is risky for Putin, who has so far tried to preserve a semblance of peace in the capital and other major cities where support for the war is lower than in the provinces.

Putin has repeatedly railed against the US for driving NATO's eastward expansion, especially its courting of ex-Soviet republics such as Ukraine and Georgia which Russia regards as part of its own sphere of influence.

Putin said that top government officials in several unnamed "leading" NATO countries had spoken of potentially using nuclear weapons against Russia.

He also accused the West of risking "nuclear catastrophe," by allowing Ukraine to shell the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant which is under Russian control, something Kyiv has denied.

Putin gave his explicit support to referendums that will be held in coming days in swathes of Ukraine controlled by Russian troops - the first step to formal annexation of a chunk of Ukraine the size of Hungary.

The self-styled Donetsk (DPR) and the Luhansk People's Republics (LPR), which Putin recognised as independent just before the invasion, and Russian-installed officials in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions have asked for votes.

"We cannot, have no moral right to hand over people close to us to the executioners, we cannot but respond to their sincere desire to determine their own fate," Putin said.

The referendums pave the way for the formal annexation of about 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory.

The West and Ukraine have condemned the referendum plan as an illegal sham and vowed never to accept its results. French President Emmanuel Macron said the plans were "a parody."

But by formally annexing Ukrainian territories, Putin is giving himself the potential pretext to use nuclear weapons from Russia's vast arsenal, which has more warheads than even the US.

Russia's nuclear doctrine allows the use of such weapons if weapons of mass destruction are used against it or if the Russian state faces an existential threat from conventional weapons.