The referendums held in Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine have drawn to a close and the votes tallied. Russian-installed election officials in all four regions report overwhelming majorities in favor of becoming part of Russia. The referendums took place in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Combined, these four areas represent fifteen percent of Ukrainian territory. Now, their days of belonging to Ukraine are numbered.
As expected, the referendum results have prompted Russia to move rapidly to annex these regions. Annexation is expected by the end of the week. From that point forward, in the view of the Kremlin, Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia will become sovereign Russian soil. Putin will address Russia’s parliament on the subject on Friday and Russian lawmakers could consider annexation legislation as early as next Monday.
Today, Russia has swung back to playing the nuclear threat card, intending to deter Ukraine from moving to retake the territories after the annexation becomes official. As sovereign Russian soil, the territories will be placed under the protection of the entire Russian military arsenal including nuclear weapons. Moscow is also hoping to influence the tenor of the war and warn off the United States and Europe from continuing to contribute significant military and other material support to Ukraine as the war drags on. It is apparent the referendum and coming annexation, coupled with the latest nuclear threats from Moscow appear primed to move the war into a new, potentially more dangerous phase.
Then there is the matter of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipeline ruptures beneath the Baltic Sea on Monday. It is becoming apparent the leaks were deliberate, which leads to the question of who would be responsible for an act of sabotage on the pipelines. That subject will be discussed in tomorrow’s post.
Staged voting in referendums across Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine began on Friday as international condemnation of the referendums increased considerably. The results of these referendums will assuredly be in Russia’s favor. When all is said and done, and the vote totals counted up, Moscow will move to annex the areas of Ukraine now under its control, as well as a swath of territory under Ukrainian control at the moment. This is not a new tactic. Vladimir Putin’s government used it in 2014 after Russian troops entered and took control of Crimea. In that instance, the referendum and subsequent annexation exerted Russia’s will and intentions. The ballots now being handed out in the Russian occupied areas asks a single question: Do you wish to secede from Ukraine and create an independent state that will enter the Russian Federation?
The referendums are being held over four days in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizka. There have been significant made by Russia to ‘Russify’ these regions over recent weeks. Access to Ukrainian cellphone networks and internet services was severed. The ruble has replaced Ukrainian currency and schools now teach a Russia-based curriculum. One fear of residents in the occupied areas is that annexation will lead to conscription into the Russian armed forces. The prospect of Ukrainian forced to fight fellow Ukrainians is not appealing to many of the residents who still remain in the occupied areas.
What comes in the aftermath of the votes being tallied and the eventual annexation has the power of potentially setting this war on a new and inherently more dangerous path. On 27 September, we’ll look closer at what the referendum and subsequent annexations could have in store for Russia, Ukraine, Europe and the world.
Vladimir Putin has upped the ante in Ukraine and made it clear that he is determined to end the war on terms favorable to Russia. In an address to his nation Putin announced the call-up of approximately 300,000 reservists. The Russian leader cited Western material support for Ukraine as the primary reason for the mobilization. He labeled the move ‘necessary and urgent’ in light of the advanced weapons that the United States and European nations have been pouring into Ukraine since February. Russia’s standoff with the West has not dissipated. Putin accused the West of ‘nuclear blackmail’ and warned that Russia has nuclear weapons of its own. Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive in the northeast has alarmed the Russian government. This was made apparent by Putin’s support for referendums being hastily set up in territories occupied by Russian forces. Annexation of these areas will make them part of Russia. After that, any potential Ukrainian attacks against them can be considered aggressive action against Russia itself. Putin has declared he is prepared to use every weapon in Russia’s arsenal to defend ‘Russian territory.’
“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people,” Putin said in the address. “This is not a bluff.”
As for the partial mobilization, 300,000 is a significant number of reservists. It will be some time before these citizens-turned-soldier are ready for duty. How useful they will be on the frontlines in Ukraine remains to be seen. Some will inevitably end up there, but not all. Most likely, not even the majority. The move also runs the risk of sewing domestic dissent inside of Russia. Protests broke out across the country in response to the callup. Russian police and security forces detained over 1,300 demonstrators. Although unsanctioned protests can result in prison terms for those found guilty of organizing or attending them, a significant number of Russians chose to take part. The prospect of reservists being called up hits close to home for many Russians. Suddenly the war in Ukraine, which has seemed far away and of little consequence for the average Russian citizen, is now standing at the front door.
The Ukrainian military launched a counteroffensive in the northeast region of the country has made significant progress and taken the Russians by surprise. The number of Russian military units in the Kharkov region had dropped considerably once Russia shifted the focus of its military campaign in Ukraine from the north to the east and south. In the lead-up to the much anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, the Kherson area in the south looked to be the focal point for the coming attack. Naturally, Russia shifted a large number of troops and equipment from the northeast to Kherson. This played right into Ukrainian hands. They took the bait and now Kiev’s forces are reaping the benefits. Ukraine is making claims of boisterous victories and significant progress. While it is clear significant progress is begin made, independent verification on some of the claims coming out of Kiev has not yet come. Western media is heralding the results of the counteroffensive as bringing about a new phase of the war and a shift from the war of attrition to a more maneuver-based campaign. As is generally the case with journalists, they might be jumping the gun. Ukraine must defend the ground it has recaptured in the northeast and there are indications of Russian forces stepping up attacks in the area.
Germany is under pressure to move more expediently on the promised delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine. After the Russian invasion began in February, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a plan to rearm Germany and provide heavy weapons to Ukraine. Now over six-months into the conflict, many of the promised weapons have yet to arrive. The German government has not explained the delays. Fears that Russia will suspend all gas deliveries to Germany are undoubtedly playing a role in Berlin’s long-term thinking. Given Nord Stream 1’s indefinite shut down and the worsening energy situation in Europe, I would not expect to see an increase in the number of German weapons arriving in Ukraine anytime soon.
Almost every major source now agrees that Ukrainian forces have launched their long-awaited counteroffensive in the southern area of the country. This is where the consensus ends. Judging by reports from reliable sources in the region, the counteroffensive has bogged down following initial successes and progress. The tone of Ukrainian government officials has also been dialed down to a degree. After announcing on 29 August that a new offensive in ‘multiple directions’ was underway, spokesperson for the Ukrainian military’s southern command Natalia Humeniuk changed her tone. “We continue positional fighting and hold on to areas where we stand, trying to block the enemy from getting reinforcement. We are asking therefore for people to restrain from declaring liberated settlements – there are civilians there and the enemy may strike with missiles or from air.” Not encouraging words by any stretch.
It is not entirely clear what the objectives of Ukraine’s counteroffensive are. An information blackout around southern Ukraine has been in effect since 29 August. Curbing information coming out of the warzone is quite useful to the government and military. Especially if the counteroffensive loses steam. It allows Kiev to soften the blow on national morale if the worst case scenario becomes true.
Today, both Russia and Ukraine have made a number of claims that remain unverified. However, if the counteroffensive does make substantial progress in the coming days the tone and veracity of each side’s statements will change to meet the new realities on the battlefield.