Russia Begins Massive War Call-Up, Ukraine Demands ‘Just Punishment’

Riot police block a street during a protest against mobilization in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

KYIV/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Russia pushed ahead on Thursday with its biggest conscription since World War II while Ukraine demanded “just punishment” for a seven-month-old invasion that has shaken the world.

President Vladimir Putin’s order to mobilize another 300,000 Russians to fight escalates a war that has already killed thousands, displaced millions, pulverized cities, damaged the global economy and revived Cold War confrontation.

The mass conscription may be the riskiest domestic move of Putin’s two decades in power, after the Kremlin promised it would not happen, amid a string of battlefield failures in Ukraine.

Anti-war protests in 38 Russian cities saw 1,400 people arrested on Wednesday, a monitoring group said. Some had been served summons to report to enlistment offices on Thursday, the first full day of conscription, independent news outlets said.

Flights out of Russia sold out after Putin’s announcement.

“Every normal person is [concerned], it’s horrible,” said one man, identifying himself only as Sergey, disembarking in Belgrade after a flight from Moscow. “It is okay to be afraid of the war and such things.”

Ukraine urged the United Nations to create a special tribunal and strip Moscow of its U.N. Security Council veto power as a diplomatic showdown loomed on Thursday in New York.

“A crime has been committed against Ukraine, and we demand just punishment,” President Volodymyr Zelensky, dressed in his trademark green military T-shirt, told world leaders by video at the annual U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday.

The Security Council has been unable to take significant action on Ukraine because Russia is a permanent veto-wielding member, along with the United States, France, Britain and China.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will face Ukrainian and Western counterparts when U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan brief the 15-member council later on Thursday.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who has spoken to Putin numerous times this year, said the goal remained for a negotiated peace despite the “mistake” of conscription.

On the ground, Russia’s military fired nine missiles on the city of Zaporizhzhia, hitting a hotel and a power station, said regional governor Oleksandr Starukh.

At least one person was killed with others trapped under rubble, he said. Zaporizhzhia is about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the nuclear plant of the same name.

Ukraine’s armed forces said Russia had in the last 24 hours launched eight missiles and 16 airstrikes and fired 115 anti-aircraft missiles at military and civilian targets, mostly in the Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk areas in the south and east respectively.

Putin says Russia is carrying out a “special military operation” to demilitarize neighboring Ukraine, rid it of dangerous nationalists and defend Moscow from transatlantic military alliance NATO. Kyiv and the West call Russia’s actions an unprovoked, imperialist land grab to reconquer a country that shook off Russian domination with the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union.

Moscow denies targeting civilians and describes accusations of rights abuses as a smear campaign by Western powers intent on destroying a resurgent Russia.

Putin also announced moves to annex four Ukrainian provinces – about 15% of Ukrainian territory – and threatened to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia, declaring, “It’s not a bluff.”

Western leaders, including President Joe Biden, have assailed Putin this week as “reckless” and desperate due to a successful Ukraine counteroffensive in recent days.

Ukraine extended its hold on recaptured northeastern territory earlier this week as troops marched farther into areas abandoned by Russia, paving the way for a potential assault on occupation forces in the Donbas industrial heartland.

Russia and Ukraine carried out an unexpected prisoner swap on Wednesday, the largest since the war began and involving almost 300 people, including 10 foreigners and the commanders who led a prolonged Ukrainian defense of Mariupol earlier this year.

“We’re now out of the danger zone and on our way home to our families,” one of those whom Russian forces released, Britain’s Aiden Aislin, said in a video from a plane posted on social media.

“By the skin of our teeth,” added also-released compatriot Shaun Pinner beside him.

Both men had been sentenced to death by a court in the Russian-backed breakaway region of Donetsk.

In Uzbekistan, where many move or travel to Russia for work, authorities warned of prosecution for citizens joining foreign armies. Russia offered fast-track citizenship to those who sign up and Ukraine said it had captured Uzbeks fighting for Putin.

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