Pressure intensified on President Vladimir Putin when his decision to send reservists to Ukraine sparked widespread protests and hundreds of arrests in his country, and Western leaders tore apart the Russian leader at the United Nations.
Training his fire on Putin as he addressed the General Assembly, the US President Joe Biden accused him of “shamelessly” violating the UN Charter with a war aimed at “extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state”.
Speaking in unison with his 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 war nuclear power cannot be won and must never be waged”.
Addressing the congregation later by video – the only leader authorized to do so – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged the UN to punish Russia for the invasion, calling for a special tribunal and compensation fund and for Moscow to be stripped of its veto power.
“A crime has been committed against Ukraine and we demand just punishment,” said Zelensky, who received a standing ovation.
High-level addresses arrived a few hours later Cheese fries dramatically raised the stakes in its seven-month war by calling up 300,000 military reservists – a step Western powers have portrayed as desperation and which has drawn 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.
AFP reporters in central Moscow saw at least 50 people detained by police in riot gear, while in the former imperial capital Saint Petersburg police surrounded and arrested a small group of protesters, storming them into a bus as they chanted: “No mobilization! “
“Everyone is scared. I am for peace and I don’t want to have to shoot,” said protester Vasily Fedorov, a student wearing a peace symbol on his chest.
Flights from Russia were nearly full this week, airline and travel agency data showed, in an apparent exodus of people unwilling to join the conflict.
On the same day as Putin’s mobilization order, Ukraine announced the exchange of a record 215 imprisoned soldiers with Russia, including fighters who led the defense of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, which has become an icon of the Ukrainian resistance.
Ten released prisoners – including two from the United States, five from Britain and others from Sweden, Morocco and Croatia – have been transferred to Saudi Arabia from Russia, Riyadh said, without specifying when they would be sent home. them.
But diplomatic breakthroughs have not lowered the temperature as Western leaders have expressed outrage at Putin’s latest moves – and Moscow’s plan to hold annexation referendums this week in areas of Ukraine under Russian control.
Donetsk and Lugansk in the east and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south are holding five-day votes starting Friday – a move that would allow Moscow to accuse Ukraine of attacking so-called Russian territory.
Turkey was the latest NATO member to speak out against Russia’s referendum plans on Wednesday, calling them “illegitimate”.
The referendums follow a pattern established in 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine after a similar vote.
As in 2014, Washington, Berlin and Paris denounced the latest polls, saying the international community would never recognize the results.
“Not to bluff”
In a pre-recorded address early Wednesday, Putin accused the West of trying to “destroy” Russia by backing Kyiv 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 bluff,” Putin said.
“Those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the tide can also turn in their direction.”
On the sidelines of the UN rally, French President Emmanuel Macron urged the world to “exert maximum pressure” on Putin, while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz denounced the call as “an act of desperation”.
And British Prime Minister Liz Truss – on her first trip since taking over from Boris Johnson – pledged to the UN to maintain “our military support for Ukraine for as long as necessary”.
nato General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, meanwhile, condemned Putin’s “dangerous and reckless nuclear rhetoric”.
Senior diplomats from the European Union held an emergency meeting Wednesday evening on the sidelines of the UN to discuss possible new sanctions against Russia.
“We will study, we will adopt new restrictive measures, both personal and sectoral,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after the meeting, adding that a final decision must be taken formally.
Russia’s “seizure and militarization” of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power 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 Great Britain.
“(The) heightened risks of a nuclear accident will remain dangerously high as long as Russia remains present at the site of (the nuclear power plant),” they said in a joint statement calling for Moscow’s withdrawal.
“Free us from what?
The flurry of announcements from Moscow came with Russian forces in Ukraine facing their biggest challenge since the conflict began.
In a massive counter-offensive in recent weeks, Kyiv forces have retaken hundreds of towns and villages.
In a rare admission, Moscow said on Wednesday that 5,937 Russian soldiers had died in Ukraine since February.
As Putin made his announcement, residents were clearing rubble and shattered glass from a nine-story building hit by a missile strike overnight in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.
“They want to free us from what? From our home ? From our relatives? Of friends? a 50-year-old resident, who gave her name as Galina, raged. “They want to free us from life?”