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.
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.
For weeks, if not months, Kiev has indicated the recapture of the southern city of Kherson will mark the start of a long-awaited counteroffensive aimed at turning the tide of the war. Despite the assurances and claims by the Ukrainian military and government, the counteroffensive has not taken shape. The heavy attention given to artillery and rocket attacks in the southern Ukraine, coupled with attacks against Russian military installations in Crimea last week certainly give the indication of a major counteroffensive kicking off. Unfortunately, the sound and fury of last week appear to signify nothing. There are no troop movements underway or shifting of supplies. The Ukrainian air force, despite government claims, has not played an effective role in the fighting for weeks.
Kherson remains in Russian hands. Despite the heavy impact Ukrainian artillery and rockets have had on the city, Russian troops are dug in and resisting in kind. The fight for the city has devolved into a stalemate with no signs of a counteroffensive evident. In fact, Kherson mimics the strategic situation entirely: Long term stalemate with no signs of decisive progress looming on the horizon.
Ukraine has been in the periphery for me this summer, admittedly. Between the Western Pacific flaring up and professional obligations demanding to be met, I have not had the time to go into deep analysis of the war in Ukraine. I am planning to address Kherson and the strategic stalemate which now seems set to impact the war and remain an unpredictable element for some time to come. Hopefully Sunday at the earliest, barring any major developments in Ukraine, the Pacific or anywhere else in the world.