US President Joe Biden tore into Vladimir Putin at the United Nations on Wednesday, hours after the Russian leader dramatically escalated his seven-month war in Ukraine by calling up 300,000 military reservists.
Biden accused Putin of “shamelessly” violating the UN Charter and castigated him over a threat to use nuclear weapons, warning that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
“Just today, President Putin has made overt nuclear threats against Europe,” Biden said in his address to the annual UN General Assembly, lambasting Putin’s “irresponsible” stance.
Russian forces have attacked Ukrainian schools, railway stations and hospitals, the US president said, to pursue a war aimed at “extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state.”
Putin’s mobilization order came as 10 prisoners of war — including two from the United States and five from Britain — were freed as part of an exchange between Russia and Ukraine.
The prisoners, who also hail from Sweden, Morocco and Croatia, were transferred to Saudi Arabia from Russia, Riyadh said, without specifying when they would be returned home.
But the diplomatic breakthrough did little to lower the temperature as Western leaders voiced outrage at Putin’s latest moves — and Moscow’s plan to stage annexation referendums this week in Russian-held regions of Ukraine.
Donetsk and Lugansk in the east and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south are holding votes over five days beginning Friday — ramping up the stakes in the conflict by allowing Moscow to accuse Ukraine of attacking supposedly Russian territory.
– ‘Not a bluff’ –
In a pre-recorded address early on Wednesday, Putin accused the West of trying to “destroy” Russia through its backing of Kyiv.
Russia needed to support those in Ukraine who wanted to “determine their own future,” he said.
Putin announced a partial military mobilization, with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu telling state television that some 300,000 reservists would be called up.
“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 are trying to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the wind can also turn in their direction.”
But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an interview released Wednesday that he did not think Putin would resort to nuclear weapons.
“Tomorrow, Putin can say — as well as Ukraine, we want part of Poland, otherwise we will use atomic weapons. We cannot make these compromises,” he said.
On the sidelines of the UN gathering, French President Emmanuel Macron urged the world to “put maximum pressure” on Putin, whose decisions “will serve to isolate Russia further.”
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz denounced the call-up as “an act of desperation” in a “criminal war” he said Russia could not win.
The sudden flurry of announcements by Moscow this week came with Russian forces in Ukraine facing their biggest challenge since the start of the conflict.
During a sweeping Ukrainian counter-offensive in recent weeks, Kyiv’s forces have retaken hundreds of towns and villages.
In a rare admission of military losses from Moscow, Shoigu said on Wednesday 5,937 Russian soldiers had died in Ukraine since the launch of the military intervention in February.
– ‘Liberate us from what? –
As Putin made his announcement, residents were clearing rubble and broken glass from a nine-story apartment block hit by an overnight missile strike in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.
“They want to liberate us from what? From our homes? From our relatives? From friends? What else?” she told AFP. “They want to free us from being alive?” said a 50-year-old resident, who gave her name as Galina.
The referendums follow a pattern established in 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine after a similar vote.
Like in 2014, Washington, Berlin and Paris denounced the latest ballots, saying the international community would never recognize the results.
“The Kremlin is organizing sham referenda,” Biden told the UN.
Beijing, which so far has tacitly backed Moscow’s intervention called on Wednesday for a “ceasefire through dialogue” and in likely reference to the referendums said the “territorial integrity of all countries should be respected”.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg meanwhile denounced Putin’s “dangerous and reckless nuclear rhetoric.”
Kyiv vowed to “eliminate” threats posed by Russia, saying its forces would “destroy” invading Russian troops whether they had been deployed voluntarily or conscripted.
“We will destroy everyone who comes to our land with weapons — whether voluntarily or by mobilization,” Ukrainian armed forces commander-in-chief Valeriy Zaluzhnyi wrote on Facebook.