UNITED NATIONS, United States – Pressure mounted on President Vladimir Putin as his decision to send reservists to Ukraine led to widespread protests and hundreds of arrests at home, and Western leaders attacked the Russian leader at the United Nations.
US President Joe Biden turned his fire on Putin as he addressed the General Assembly, accusing him of “shamelessly” violating the UN Charter with a war aimed at “wiping out Ukraine’s right to exist as a state”. to have.
Speaking in unison with other NATO leaders on Wednesday, Biden denounced Putin for making “overt nuclear threats against Europe” as part of his recent escalation and warned that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” “.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy later addressed the assembly via video – the only leader was allowed to do so – urging the UN to punish Russia for the invasion and calling for the establishment of a special court and a compensation fund, and for Moscow to lift its veto.
“A crime has been committed in Ukraine and we demand a just punishment,” said Zelensky, who received a standing ovation.
The high-profile speeches came hours after Putin dramatically upped the ante in his seven-month war by calling up 300,000 military reservists – a move portrayed as desperation by Western powers and drawing protesters across Russia to the streets.
In Russia, more than 1,300 people have been arrested in 38 different cities, according to surveillance group OVD-Info – the largest protests since Putin’s offensive in February.
AFP journalists saw at least 50 people in anti-riot gear arrested by police in central Moscow, while in the former imperial capital of Saint Petersburg, police surrounded and arrested a small group of protesters and loaded them onto a bus, while they chanted: “No mobilization !”
“Everyone is afraid. I’m for peace and I don’t want to have to shoot,” said protester Vasily Fedorov, a student with a pacifist symbol on his chest.
Flights from Russia were almost fully booked this week, airline and travel agency data showed, prompting 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 detained soldiers with Russia, including militants who led the defense of the Azovstal Steel Plant in Mariupol, which became an icon of the Ukrainian resistance.
Ten freed prisoners — including two from the United States, five from Britain and others from Sweden, Morocco and Croatia — have been transferred from Russia to Saudi Arabia, Riyadh said, without specifying when they would be returned home.
But the diplomatic breakthroughs did little to lower the temperature as Western leaders expressed outrage at Putin’s latest moves – and at Moscow’s plan to hold annexation referendums in Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine this week.
Donetsk and Lugansk in the east, and Kherson and Zaporizhia in the south, will hold voting for five days starting Friday – a move that would allow Moscow to accuse Ukraine of allegedly attacking Russian territory.
Turkey became the latest NATO member to oppose Russia’s referendum plans on Wednesday, calling them “illegitimate”.
The referendums follow a pattern established in 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine after a similar vote.
As in 2014, Washington, Berlin and Paris condemned the last election, saying the international community would never recognize the results.
In a pre-taped speech early Wednesday, Putin accused the West of wanting to “destroy” Russia by supporting Kiev when he announced a partial military mobilization.
“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all 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 tide can turn their way, too.”
On the sidelines of the UN assembly, French President Emmanuel Macron urged the world to put “maximum pressure” on Putin, while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz denounced the convening as “an act of desperation”.
And Britain’s Prime Minister Liz Truss – on her first trip since taking over from Boris Johnson – vowed at the United Nations to “maintain our military support to Ukraine for as long as necessary”.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg meanwhile condemned Putin’s “dangerous and reckless nuclear rhetoric”.
Senior European Union diplomats held an emergency meeting late Wednesday on the sidelines of the United Nations to discuss possible new sanctions against Russia.
“We will examine, 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 would have to be made formally.
Russia’s “seizure and militarization” of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – the largest in Europe – has also been condemned by several countries, including the United States, France and Britain, as the “root cause” of the nuclear instability.
“(The) increased risks of a nuclear incident 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.
“Frees us from what?”
The spate of announcements from Moscow came as Russian forces in Ukraine faced their biggest challenge since the conflict began.
During a full-scale counteroffensive in recent weeks, Kiev 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, local residents were clearing debris and broken glass from a nine-story apartment block hit by a rocket attack in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv overnight.
“What do you want to free us from? From our homes? From our relatives? From friends?” raged a 50-year-old resident, who gave her name as Galina. “You want to rid us of life?”
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