Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the partial mobilization of the Russian army on Sept. 21, the first military call-up of its kind since World War II.
The announcement comes less than 24 hours after pro-Russian leaders in four Ukrainian provinces announced plans to hold referendums on leaving Ukraine to join the Russian Federation.
The twin developments, which drew swift condemnation from Ukraine and its allies, appear to have surprised many observers.
“Clearly, it’s something that we should take very seriously because, you know, we’re not in control. I’m not sure he [Putin] is in control either,” UK foreign office minister Gillian Keegan said. “This is obviously an escalation.”
Referendums Within Days
Pro-Russian leaders in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia announced plans on Sept. 20 to hold separate referendums on whether to join Russia.
All four votes are slated to be held within days, between Sept. 23 and Sept. 27.
Since Moscow began what it has called a “special military operation” in Ukraine on Feb. 24, Russian forces and their local allies have taken almost all of Luhansk and roughly 60 percent of Donetsk, the latter of which remains the scene of intense fighting.
Only days before launching its operation, Moscow formally recognized both provinces as independent “people’s republics.”
Together, Luhansk and Donetsk make up eastern Ukraine’s Russian-speaking Donbas region, which has been the primary focus of Russia’s invasion.
Russia and its allies also hold most of the southern Zaporizhzhia province and almost all of neighboring Kherson province, including the latter’s regional capital.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov defended the decision.
“The peoples of the respective territories should decide their fate,” Lavrov said.
However, Kyiv and most Western capitals have roundly condemned the move.
“Russia has been, and remains, an aggressor, illegally occupying parts of Ukrainian land,” Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, wrote on Twitter. “Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say.”
Over the past 10 days, Ukrainian forces have achieved notable gains on the battlefield, retaking positions in the northeastern Kharkiv region, which sits adjacent to Donbas.
While the government in Kyiv is portraying the counteroffensive as a “turning point” in the conflict, Russian officials have downplayed its strategic importance.
Kyiv says it will never accept Russian occupation of its territory while continuing to call on its Western allies to supply it with increasingly advanced weaponry.
The European Union likewise condemned the planned polls, vowing not to recognize the results.
“Russia, its political leadership, and all those involved in these ‘referenda’ and other violations of international law in Ukraine will be held accountable,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement.
He went on to say that “additional restrictive measures against Russia would be considered” in light of the circumstances.
In a 2014 referendum, the Black Sea region of Crimea, which shares a border with Kherson province, voted to leave Ukraine and join Russia.
Unrecognized by all but a handful of countries, the Crimea poll came on the heels of Ukraine’s “Maidan Revolution,” which swept President Viktor Yanukovych, who was known to be close to Moscow, from power.
Moscow Mobilizes Military
Putin upped the ante on Sept. 21, announcing the partial mobilization—effective immediately—of Russia’s armed forces.
In a televised address, he said the decision was prompted by challenges posed by a roughly 1,000-kilometer-long (about 621 miles) frontline, as well as his claim that Russia was engaged in conflict with “the entire western military machine.”
Putin also denounced what he described as “pronouncements by representatives of leading NATO countries about the possibility and admissibility of using weapons of mass destruction against Russia.”
Speaking after a major summit of Eurasian leaders in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Sept. 16, Putin alleged that Western powers sought the breakup of Russia into ineffectual statelets.
According to Russia’s Defense Ministry, the fresh mobilization involves 300,000 reserve troops with previous military experience.
There’s little doubt that the incorporation of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia into Russia—as happened in Crimea in 2014—would profoundly alter the nature of the conflict.
“Encroachment onto Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self-defense.” Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council (and former Russian president), said in a Telegram post. “This is why these referendums are so feared in Kyiv and the West.”
In March, U.S. President Joe Biden said direct confrontation between NATO and Russia would risk triggering a third world war.
Despite the escalations, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appeared upbeat.
“The situation at the front clearly indicates the initiative is with Ukraine,” he said in a Sept. 21 video address.
Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink described the moves by Moscow as “signs of weakness, of Russian failure.”
The United States, Brink wrote on Twitter, “will never recognize Russia’s claim to purportedly annexed Ukrainian territory.”
China, just days after Chinese leader Xi Jinping met with Putin in Uzbekistan, responded to the crisis by calling for “dialogue and consultation” and “a way to address the security concerns of all parties.”
NATO member Turkey, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also met with Putin in Samarkand, issued similar calls for “diplomacy and mediation.”
Speaking on the sidelines of a U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the latest moves by Moscow “demonstrate the seriousness of the situation.”
Reuters contributed to this report.