“In the face of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal,” Putin warned. “This is not a bluff,” he said, in a clear reference to Russia’s nuclear capabilities.
“I will emphasize this again — with all the means at our disposal,” he added.
Brimming with resentment and anger at the West’s backing of Ukraine, Putin called the war an effort by Western elites to destroy and dismember Russia, directly framing the war as a confrontation between Moscow and NATO countries.
Those comments were reinforced in a separate address by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, although Western leaders, including President Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz urged Putin not to invade and have restricted support for Ukraine to signal their nations are not directly fighting Russia.
The plans to stage referendums in four occupied regions of eastern Ukraine — Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson — from Friday to Tuesday pave the way for their illegal annexation into Russia, a step that will be rejected globally. But they could be used by Russia to claim that Ukrainian attacks to liberate its own territory amount to attacks on Russia itself.
Putin’s blunt, uncompromising rhetoric underscored his growing isolation, as Russia’s war on Ukraine dominated discussions at the annual U.N. General Assembly meetings on Tuesday where world leaders condemned military violence and lamented the global hardship caused by chaos in food supply chains and soaring energy prices.
Slamming “aggressive” Western elites and their “pseudo-values,” Putin accused the West of trying to orchestrate a Soviet-style collapse of Russia itself.
“The purpose of this West is to weaken, divide and ultimately destroy our country,” he said in a speech that was clearly intended to shift public ambivalence into stronger national support for the war effort. “They are already directly saying that in 1991, they were able to split the Soviet Union, and now the time has come for Russia itself, that it should disintegrate into many mortally hostile regions.”
“They made total Russophobia their weapon, including for decades purposefully cultivating hatred for Russia,” he said, adding that the West was using Ukraine as an “anti-Russian beachhead.”
Putin reiterated his false claims that Russia is eliminating “Nazis” from eastern Ukraine; repeated his denunciation of Ukraine’s democratically elected government, led by a former comedian and television actor Volodymyr Zelensky, as a “Nazi regime;” and made sweeping assertions, without evidence, about the allegiance to Russia of residents of Ukraine’s Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.
By mobilizing reservists, Putin bowed to intense pressure from pro-war hard-liners, taking a path likely to be deeply unpopular. The move also quickly drew new international condemnation and renewed pledges from Ukrainian officials in Kyiv to reclaim all territory occupied by Russia. The Ukrainians derided Putin’s moves as a desperate attempt to salvage Moscow’s failing war effort.
The pivot to swift referendums, annexation and partial mobilization was an implicit admission of the failures and setbacks in what the Kremlin insists on calling a “special military operation,” despite Putin’s insistence as recently as last Friday that no changes were needed.
“No, the plan is not subject to correction,” he told journalists in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, at the end of a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where he faced “questions and concerns” about the war from his most powerful ally, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and a public rebuke from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In his decree issued Wednesday, Putin stopped short of a full mobilization, which would entail a full-scale national draft, and he did not rebrand his “special military operation” as a war.
The call-up of reservists, nonetheless, will bring the grim reality of the war home to millions more Russians whose family members may now have to fight. And military analysts question the short-term benefits, saying it is not clear that Russia is capable of training and quartering 300,000 reservists, given how much of its military resources are tied up in Ukraine and recent significant losses in its officer corps.
A recent recruitment drive failed to turn the tide of the war, underscoring the unease in Russia about high casualty numbers.
New casualty figures announced by Shoigu on Wednesday — including 5,937 dead — will only heighten the fears of ordinary Russians, although Western estimates put Russia’s death toll much higher.
In July, CIA Director William J. Burns estimated that approximately 15,000 Russian soldiers had been killed and some 45,000 wounded.
The last time Russia announced its casualties was at the end of March when the Defense Ministry claimed 1,351 soldiers died. A tally compiled by Russian outlet Mediazona and the BBC Russian service from open-source materials such as social media posts, official announcements and obituaries found that at least 6,200 Russian servicemen have been killed.
With Russia’s conventional army facing repeated setbacks and battlefield failures, Moscow has enlisted prisoners, some sent into battle with a week’s training, in an effort to address its manpower problem.
Russia’s poorer than expected performance in Ukraine leaves Moscow relying on its nuclear arsenal to reinforce its status as a global military power, but Putin’s hint Wednesday about his willingness to resort to weapons of mass destruction was his sharpest since invading Ukraine.
Putin, who sees Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” and denies Ukraine is a genuine sovereign state, insisted Wednesday that Russia was obliged to assist people in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. And despite the thousands of Ukrainians killed in the war, the millions displaced and evidence of atrocities, he insisted that referendums in areas Russia invaded and occupied would reflect legitimate public opinion.
“We cannot, we have no moral right to hand over people close to us to be torn to pieces by executioners,” Putin said. “We cannot but respond to their sincere desire to determine their own fate.”
Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.
The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.