(CN) — Russian President Vladimir Putin, faced with the growing possibility of a military defeat in Ukraine following a disastrous retreat of his troops from Kharkiv, began a major escalation on Wednesday by ordering hundreds of thousands of Russians to prepare to fight in Ukraine.
This ominous military development comes as Putin also set in motion legal and political steps that allow him to declare war-ravaged territories his army occupies in Ukraine as Russian land that must be defended if attacked.
In a televised address on Wednesday, Putin announced the mobilization of some 300,000 reservists, citing the need for reinforcements in Ukraine because Russia's existence was threatened by the West. About 200,000 Russian soldiers have been fighting in Ukraine, but they have found themselves outnumbered by Ukraine's forces. Initially, the Kremlin said reservists with combat experience would be called up first.
“Russian citizens must be confident: the territorial integrity of our motherland, our independence and freedom will be ensured,” Putin said. “Let me stress it again: this will be ensured by all of our available means.”
He accused the United States and its NATO allies of scuttling ceasefire and peace deals with Ukraine because they allegedly want to use the fighting in Ukraine to attack and even dismantle Russia as a nation.
“NATO is conducting reconnaissance actually across the entire south of Russia in real time, using advanced systems, aircraft and ships, satellites and strategic drones,” he said, as reported by Tass, a Russian state news agency.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu went further and said Russia was “at war” with “the collective West.” Until now, the Kremlin has refrained from calling combat in Ukraine a “war” and instead forced media outlets, officials and the general public to use the term “special military operation” to describe the conflict.
“I cannot but emphasize the fact that today we are at war not so much with Ukraine and the Ukrainian army as with the collective West,” Shoigu said. “At this point we are really at war with the collective West, with NATO, or vice versa – with NATO and with the collective West.”
In another ominous development, long-expected annexation referendums were announced Tuesday in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, four large Ukrainian regions that have mostly fallen under Russian control since Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24.
“We will support the decision on their future that a majority of the residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, the Zaporozhye and Kherson regions will make,” Putin said.
“A referendum is a necessity that is long overdue. It will definitely be held,” said Andrey Turchak, a Russian senator and first deputy speaker of the upper house of parliament, as reported by Tass.
“Joining Russia is what Donbas has been after for eight years,” he said, referring to the self-declared “people's republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, which together are called Donbas.
These two regions were heavily Russianized and industrialized during the Soviet Union and lie at the heart of the war. They are resource-rich, retain huge economic importance for Ukraine and were once part of the Russian empire before Ukraine was established as a republic following the Russian Revolution.
The Donbas became the theater of a bloody civil war after pro-Western Ukrainian nationalists overthrew Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian president from the Donbas region, during the 2014 Maidan revolution.
Eight years of civil war between Ukraine's army – often led by militia groups inspired by Ukrainian nationalism but also reverent of its links to Nazi history – and pro-Moscow separatist rebels – many of them Russian nationalists and Soviet admirers – left more than 14,000 people dead and forced some 2 million people to flee their homes.