Pressure mounts on President Vladimir Putin as his decision to send reservists to Ukraine sparked widespread protests and hundreds of arrests at home, and Western leaders tore apart the Russian leader at the United Nations.
US President Joe Biden directed his fire at Putin as he addressed the General Assembly, accusing him “unabashedly” of violating the UN Charter with a war aimed at “extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state”.
Speaking with fellow NATO leaders, Biden on Wednesday denounced Putin for “making overt nuclear threats against Europe” as part of his latest escalation, and warned that “a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky later addressed the assembly via video – the only leader allowed to do so – urging the UN to punish Russia for the invasion, calling for a special court and a compensation fund and for stripping Moscow of its veto.
“A crime has been committed against Ukraine and we demand a just punishment,” said Zelensky, who was given a standing ovation.
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The high-profile words came hours after Putin dramatically increased the stakes in his seven-month war by calling up 300,000 reservists – a move Western powers portrayed as desperation that drew protesters to the streets across Russia.
In Russia, more than 1,300 people have been arrested in 38 different cities, according to monitoring group OVD-Info – the largest protests seen since Putin launched his offensive in February.
France Press agency Journalists in central Moscow saw at least 50 people detained by police dressed in riot gear, while in the former imperial capital of Saint Petersburg, police surrounded and arrested a small group of protesters, carrying them onto a bus chanting, “No to mobilization!”
“Everyone is afraid. I am in favor of peace and do not want to have to shoot,” said protester Vasily Fedorov, a student wearing a pacifist symbol on his chest.
Airline and travel agent data showed that flights outside Russia were almost completely booked this week, in what appears to be a mass exodus of people unwilling to join the conflict.
On the same day Putin issued the mobilization order, Ukraine announced a record exchange of 215 imprisoned soldiers with Russia, including fighters who led the defense of the Mariupol steel mills that have become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.
Riyadh said that ten released prisoners – including two from the United States, five from Britain and others from Sweden, Morocco and Croatia – had been transferred to Saudi Arabia from Russia, without specifying when they would be repatriated.
But diplomatic breakthroughs did little to bring the temperature down as Western leaders expressed anger over Putin’s latest moves – and Moscow’s plan to hold referendums on annexation this week in Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine.
Donetsk and Lugansk in the east and Kherson and Zaporizhia in the south are holding the vote over five days starting Friday – a move that would allow Moscow to accuse Ukraine of attacking supposed Russian territory.
Turkey was the latest NATO member to speak out Wednesday against Russia’s referendum plans, calling them “illegal”.
The referendums follow the pattern set in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine after a similar vote.
As in 2014, Washington, Berlin and Paris denounced the latest ballot, saying the international community would never recognize the results.
‘Not a hoax’
In a pre-recorded speech early Wednesday, Putin accused the West of trying to “destroy” Russia by supporting Kiev as he announced a partial military mobilization.
When the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. “This is not a hoax,” Putin said.
“Those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the wind can turn in their direction as well.”
On the sidelines of the UN meeting, French President Emmanuel Macron urged the world to “exercise maximum pressure” on Putin, while German Chancellor Olaf Schulz denounced the recall as an “act of desperation”.
British Prime Minister Liz Truss – on her first trip since succeeding Boris Johnson – pledged to the United Nations to continue “our military support to Ukraine for as long as it takes”.
Meanwhile, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemned Putin’s “dangerous and reckless nuclear rhetoric”.
Senior EU diplomats held an emergency meeting on Wednesday evening on the sidelines of the United Nations to discuss possible new sanctions against Russia.
“We will study and take new restrictive measures, both personal and sectoral,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after the meeting, adding that a formal final decision was required.
The “Russian takeover and militarization” of Ukraine’s Zaporizhia nuclear plant – the largest in Europe – has also been condemned as a “root cause” of nuclear instability by several countries, including the United States, France and Britain.
“The increased risks of a nuclear accident will remain dangerously high as long as Russia is present at the (nuclear plant) site,” they said in a joint statement calling for Moscow’s withdrawal.
“Free us from what?”
The flurry of statements by Moscow came as Russian forces in Ukraine faced their biggest challenge since the beginning of the conflict.
During an all-out counterattack in recent weeks, Kyiv’s forces recaptured hundreds of towns and villages.
In a rare admission, Moscow said Wednesday that 5,937 Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine since February.
During Putin’s announcement, residents were removing rubble and broken glass from a nine-story apartment building that was hit by a missile strike at night in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.
They want to free us from what? Who are our homes? Who are our relatives? Who are friends?” A 50-year-old woman, who gave her name as Galina, was infuriated. “They want to free us from life?”
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