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Putin says Russia will mobilize up to 300,000 additional troops to fight in Ukraine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As Russia loses ground on the battlefield in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin made a major announcement that raises the stakes in the conflict. Russia will mobilize 300,000 additional troops, and Russia appears poised to annex the Ukrainian territory that it currently controls. For the latest on this, we're joined by NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow and Greg Myre here in Washington. Good to have you both here.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: Charles, why would Putin call up 300,000 more troops at this point in the war?

MAYNES: Well, he announced this as a partial mobilization, deploying what he said would only be additional reservists with military experience to fight in Ukraine. As to why now, this comes amid a Ukrainian counteroffensive that's been quite effective and growing criticism from nationalists at home that Russia was in danger of losing largely because it wasn't using its full fighting force. Yet Putin today suggested that Russia's recent problems were a result of a conflict that had shifted. You know, instead of fighting just Ukraine, Russia was also now taking on what he called the collective West.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So here, Putin says, "Washington, London and Brussels are openly urging Kyiv to bring the fight to Russian territory and defeat Moscow by any means." In other words, this is now an existential fight - one that requires more resources.

SHAPIRO: And what has the reaction been from leaders in Kyiv and Washington, Greg?

MYRE: Well, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has expressed his opposition, as you would expect, but in a sort of ho-hum, world-weary kind of way. It's like this is what we expect from the Russians. Zelenskyy says Putin needs an army of millions because so many Russian troops are running away from the fight. His tone was very much mocking rather than outrage. And President Biden spoke at the United Nations General Assembly and placed the blame for the war and everything that's happening squarely on Putin. He said this was a war chosen by one man. He says Russia is trying to extinguish Ukraine's right to exist, and Russia is committing war crimes. He also said Putin was making overt nuclear threats against Europe. This was a reference to Putin's remark that Russia has various means of destruction. Putin has issued veiled nuclear warnings previously. He claims this time, it's not a bluff.

SHAPIRO: Charles, as you told us yesterday, Russia and its allies in Ukraine are planning referendums on joining Russia, and they are scheduled to start this Friday. How could they possibly do something so complicated on such short notice in a war zone?

MAYNES: Well, you know, Russia has clearly been wanting to do this for some time. They dispatched, you know, a key Kremlin advisor to the Donbas in east Ukraine to oversee integration efforts with Russia in the past few months. They formed proxy governments to adopt Russian laws, but they kept pushing back the actual referendum vote because the moment was not - wasn't right. You know, the fighting was still going on. So really, you could say they're just speeding up the timeline here, given several factors - first of all, this counteroffensive by Ukraine, we've mentioned, but also because the Kremlin sees this as a way to change perceptions at home. You know, integration of these territories moves the conflict from an offensive campaign, one where Russia's occupying Ukraine, to a defensive campaign, one where Russia is defending its homeland. You know, and as Greg noted, Putin made clear in no uncertain terms that when it came to that, all options were on the table.

MYRE: And, Ari, we should note, Russia annexed Crimea after seizing that Ukrainian territory in 2014. So Ukraine has been through this before. It completely rejects the notion of annexation, and it has not been recognized internationally. And now today we're talking about four separate regions in Ukraine, two in the east, two in the south. And two of these places, Russia controls only parts of them. So Russia may actually be trying to annex territory that it doesn't even control.

SHAPIRO: To turn back to the fighting, Charles, how long would it likely take Russia to mobilize these 300,000 troops, equip them and get them to the frontlines in Ukraine?

MAYNES: You know, mobilization in theory starts immediately, but there's also not a lot of faith that this mobilization will remain as partial as Putin claimed today. Alexander Baunov, a senior Russian fellow at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, says Putin has essentially written an open ticket for his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu.

ALEXANDER BAUNOV: Minister Shoigu is saying that he needs 300,000 people, then about 100,000 more and 100,000 more. So it's not a partial mobilization. It's gradual mobilization.

MAYNES: And to that effect, there were protests primarily by university students in dozens of cities across the country. In Moscow, there were several hundred arrests, over 1,000 and counting nationwide, despite threats of criminal penalties. Meanwhile, the parliament today approved laws criminalizing desertion and voluntary surrender by Russian troops with up to 10 years in prison. So recruiting this new force may not be easy, just as getting them into the field is no small task. They still have to get these fresh forces trained, in place and maintain them. Let's not forget this is all unfolding as the weather turns towards winter here.

SHAPIRO: Greg, some of Russia's actions here seem to be motivated by Ukraine's military success. Do you expect the Russian mobilization to change the calculus?

MYRE: Well, 300,000 Russian troops is a lot. It's, in fact, larger than the original Russian invasion force back in February, which was less than 200,000. But many of the military analysts here in the U.S. that are weighing in say this won't provide a quick solution to Russia's ongoing military problems. Russia's best troops have had a very tough fight in Ukraine for these past seven months. And these reservists aren't their best troops. And manpower is just one issue. The Russian military leadership has made a lot of miscalculations. Russia has lost a lot of equipment. It appears to be low on supplies and ammunition. None of these issues will be solved simply by having fresh troops.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Greg Myre here in Washington and Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you both.

MYRE: My pleasure.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.