What happened in the Russia-Ukraine war this week? Catch up with the must-read news and analysis

<span>Photograph: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Every week we wrap up the must-reads from our coverage of the Ukraine war, from news and features to analysis, visual guides and opinion.

Putin mobilises reservists

Wednesday brought news that Vladimir Putin had decided to mobilise 300,000 reservists, in a sign that the Russian president realises his troops inside Ukraine are flagging. In a significant escalation that places the country’s people and economy on a wartime footing, Putin also threatened nuclear retaliation, saying that Russia had “lots of weapons to reply” to what he called western threats on Russian territory – and adding that he was not bluffing.

Putin said in televised address that Russia’s first mobilisation since the second world war was a direct response to the dangers posed by the west, which “wants to destroy our country”, and claimed the west had tried to “turn Ukraine’s people into cannon fodder”.

His speech was met with incredulity in the west. Joe Biden and allied leaders reacted angrily to Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons and pledged to maintain support for Ukraine.

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, also shrugged off Putin’s moves to escalate the war, saying his country’s forces would continue their counter-offensive, not giving Russia breathing space to mobilise and dig in on Ukrainian soil.

In Russia, the mobilisation set off protests that resulted in more than 1,300 arrests and sent many Russians heading for the border. Andrew Roth reported on the feeling inside Russia, where, suddenly, the war had come home.

Analysing the developments, Dan Sabbagh, defence and security editor, says the mobilisation is a measure that will take months to have any meaningful military impact, while Pjotr Saur writes that although the Russian leader has previously flirted with the grim prospect of using nuclear weapons, experts say his latest statements went further, raising fears around the world of an unprecedented nuclear disaster.

On Thursday, Andrew Roth wrote about the first day of the draft in Russia: summons delivered to eligible men at midnight. Schoolteachers pressed into handing out draft notices. Men given an hour to pack their things and appear at draft centres. Women sobbing as they sent their husbands and sons off to fight in Russia’s war in Ukraine. While others flee.

In New York, Patrick Wintour explains that Turkey, China and India’s patience with Moscow is ebbing.

Sham referendums

On Tuesday Andrew Roth reported that four Russian-occupied regions in Ukraine have said they are planning to hold “referendums” on joining the Russian Federation in a series of coordinated announcements that could indicate the Kremlin has made a decision to formally annexe the territories.

Moscow may be betting that a formal annexation would help halt Russian territorial losses, after a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive that has reclaimed large portions of territory in the Kharkiv region.

But Ukraine and the west have indicated they will not recognise the annexations – and that Russia’s new territorial claims will not slow Ukraine reclaiming its sovereign land.

“These referenda are an affront to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity that underpin the international system,” said the White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan.

“If this does transpire, the United States will never recognise Russia’s claims to any purportedly annexed parts of Ukraine.”

Workers attach banners displaying pro-Russian slogans in Lysychansk, the Luhansk city controlled by pro-Russian forces
Workers attach banners displaying pro-Russian slogans in Lysychansk, the city controlled by pro-Russian troops in the Luhansk region Photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

Prisoner swap

On Thursday Ukraine announced that 215 Ukrainian and foreign citizens had been released by Russia in a prisoner exchange, including fighters who led the defence of Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks that became an icon of Ukrainian resistance.

Russia received 55 prisoners including Viktor Medvedchuk, a former Ukrainian lawmaker and ally of Vladimir Putin accused of high treason, Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his daily address. Moscow has not commented.

The exchange came after news that a British man who was threatened with execution after being captured by Russian forces during the siege of Mariupol has been released alongside four other Britons and five international prisoners after the intervention of Saudi Arabia.

Liberated Ukrainians on life under occupation

Until last week, a portrait of Vladimir Putin hung on the wall of the mayor’s office in the town of Shevchenkove. There was a Russian flag. Around a cabinet table, a pro-Kremlin “leader”, Andrey Strezhko, held meetings with colleagues. There was a lot to discuss. One topic: a referendum on joining Russia. Another: a new autumn curriculum for Shevchenkove’s two schools, minus anything Ukrainian.

Strezhko’s ambitious plans were never realised. As Luke Harding and Isobel Koshiw report, on 8 September Ukraine’s armed forces launched a surprise counteroffensive. They swiftly recaptured a swathe of territory in the north-eastern Kharkiv region, including Shevchenkove. Most residents greeted the soldiers with hugs and kisses. Strezhko disappeared. He is believed to have fled across the Russian border, along with other collaborators.

Shevchenkove’s acting military administrator, Andrii Konashavych, pointed to the chair where the pseudo-mayor had sat in the council building. On the wall was a portrait of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet, who gives his name to the town. What happened to the Putin photo? “We tore it up,” Konashavych said. Why was there no picture of President Zelenskiy? “Presidents come and go. Shevchenko is eternal,” he replied.

Konashavych described Strezhko as someone who made no secret of his pro-Moscow views. The Russians rolled into Shevchenkove – population 7,000 – on 25 February, at the beginning of the invasion. Strezhko got the job after ripping down a Ukrainian trident and stamping on it with his foot. A memorial to Ukrainian soldiers who in 2014 fought against Russia in Donetsk was also demolished.

The Russians promised residents they would stay in the town for ever.

Horrors in Izium

As the Ukrainian city’s five-month ordeal ends, the evidence of dead bodies and survivors’ testimonies suggests Izium could be another Bucha.

Standing in the gloom, Maksim Maksimov showed Luke Harding where he was tortured with electric shocks. Russian soldiers took him from his cell in the basement of Izium’s police station. They sat him on an office chair and attached a zigzag crocodile clip to his finger. It was connected by cable to an old-fashioned Soviet military field telephone.

And then it began. A soldier cranked the handle, turning it faster and faster. This sent an excruciating pulse through Maksimov’s body. “I collapsed. They pulled me upright. There was a hood on my head. I couldn’t see anything. My legs went numb. I was unable to hear in my left ear,” he recalled. “Then they did it again. I passed out. I came round 40 minutes later back in my cell.”

The Russian army occupied the police station in April. This followed a furious month-long battle with Ukrainian forces who had based themselves on a hill next to Izium’s Soviet war memorial. According to Maksimov, a 50-year-old publisher, the soldiers rounded up anyone suspected of having pro-Ukrainian views. He had stayed behind to look after his elderly mother.

‘They won’t invade, will they?’ Fears rise in Russian city

Andrew Roth writes that the war has become impossible to ignore in Belgorod, southern Russia, just kilometres from the border with Ukraine. Russian soldiers retreating from the Ukrainian counterattack now roam the streets. Air defences boom out overhead several times a day. The city is once again filled with refugees. And, at the border, Russian and Ukrainian soldiers stand within sight of each other.

Three Russian soldiers from Ossetia are wandering the unfamiliar streets past the grand Transfiguration Cathedral late one evening. They seem unsteady on their feet, perhaps drunk or tired. And they’re looking for a place to eat.

Since February, they say, they have fought in Ukraine as part of the invasion force. They were stationed in the village of Velyki Prokhody, just north of Kharkiv, when the urgent signal came to flee back to Russia last week.

“What can we say? An order is an order. We didn’t have a choice,” says one wearing a hat emblazoned with a Z, the tactical symbol adopted as a patriotic emblem of war support in Russia.

As the Russian front in Kharkiv has collapsed and Ukrainians who have chosen the Russian side have fled for the border, a dark thought has crossed the minds of ordinary people here: that the war may cross into Russia.

Asked where they are headed next, the soldiers say they don’t know. But it’s likely, they think, that they will be sent back south “to defend the border”.

Child refugees from Kharkiv look through a car’s windows as they arrive at a camp in Belgorod, Russia
Child refugees from Kharkiv arrive at a camp in Belgorod, Russia. Photograph: AP