Russia hardens its position in the war after the success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive and threatens to annex occupied territories and mobilize troops to try to regain control of the invasion. After the suspension at the last minute of an expected speech by President Putin, uncertainty keeps Russia and the rest of the world on edge. Russian media indicate that Putin will address the nation this Wednesday morning.
This Tuesday, Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson, all of them occupied territories, have announced a disputed referendum to join Russia this week. On the other hand, in a context in which Putin is receiving internal pressure due to the bad news on the front, Parliament has approved a reform of the Penal Code that toughens sentences in times of “mobilization”. Finally, the Russian president also held a meeting on Tuesday with arms companies to expand their production and reduce manufacturing times.
The parliaments of the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, recognized by the Kremlin last February just before the start of the invasion, have announced this Tuesday the call for a disputed referendum that will begin this Friday and will last until the 27th. September to integrate into the Russian Federation. Shortly after, the authorities installed by Russia in the Ukrainian regions of Zaporizhia and Kherson (southeast) have also joined the announcement.
Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman of the Russian State Duma, has said the chamber would support the accession of Lugansk and Donetsk if they vote in favour. “We have to support the republics with which we have signed mutual assistance agreements,” he added. Along this same line, expressed Oleg Morozov, chairman of the Duma Control Committeewhich has said that the union could be formalized in just a few hours after the referendum, as happened with Crimea in 2014. The strategy is similar to what happened in Crimea in 2014, whose vote was declared null by an overwhelming majority in the UN General Assembly and by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, the body made up of experts in constitutional law.
The spokesman for the office of the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, Serhiy Nykyforov, has warned Russia that referendums on accession in the occupied territories will destroy any chance of peace talks between Moscow and kyiv. “Without the referendums, there is still a slim chance of a diplomatic solution. After the referendums, no”, the spokesman told the Ukrainian media Liga.net.
mobilization of troops
The Russian Parliament has also approved on Tuesday a penal code reform which includes various modifications and allusions to wartime. The Duma has included as an aggravating circumstance if the crime is committed in “periods of mobilization, martial law and times of war”, which many analysts have considered as a possible sign of upcoming moves by the Kremlin. The new law indicates that a soldier who leaves his post in times of war or mobilization between two and 10 days can face 5 years in prison (currently it was up to six months). The code also increases the penalties for “voluntary surrender.”
The director of Russian studies at the CNA think tank, Michael Kofman, has pointed out that if Russia announces a general mobilization of soldiers, Ukraine still has options to resist the invasion. “Mobilization is not necessarily a solution to all Russian problems, but it does change the dynamic.”
At the same time, in recent weeks there have been published information and leaked videos about recruitment of prisoners in prisons to fight in Ukraine and reverse the deficit of soldiers. According to British intelligence, the Russian Wagner group has been recruiting in prisons since July, offering commutations of sentences and cash incentives.
President Putin has also asked arms companies on Tuesday to increase production volumes, reduce times and study the weapons supplied by NATO to kyiv to “improve where necessary.” Putin has noted at a meeting with businessmen that, given the situation, companies must “increase production capacities in the shortest possible time, maximize equipment and optimize technological cycles without compromising quality and reducing production times”.
“Everything that is happening today is a clear ultimatum from Russia to Ukraine and the West. Either Ukraine withdraws or [amenaza con la] nuclear war,” political scientist Tatiana Stanovaya said on Twitter. “To guarantee victory, Putin is prepared to immediately hold referendums with the aim of obtaining the right, according to him, to use any weapon to protect Russia’s territory. Putin does not want to win this war on the battlefield, rather he wants to force kyiv to surrender without a fight,” she added.
“An important clarification is that the referendums will be organized only as a response to the offensive [ucraniana], the probability of which Putin underestimated. A week ago, the Kremlin seriously believed that the referendums would take place closer to the end of the year, if they did at all,” he said. “In other words: it is not a plan, but the failure of the plan.” “And finally there will be mobilization if the West and Ukraine do not react ‘as they should'”
In his daily analysis of the war, the US think tank Institute for the Study of War, said on Monday that discussions about voting in occupied areas “suggest that the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive in the north of the country is causing panic among Russian authorities and agents.” The think tank explains that the Ukrainian counteroffensive continues, although the greatest advances were made more than a week ago.
The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has stated that he will not recognize the result of the votes and on Monday he assured on the eve of his speech in the UN General Assembly during a interview with PBS that “if there is going to be peace in Ukraine, the return of the invaded lands will be very important. The invaded lands will be returned to Ukraine.” The Turkish leader has also called on Russia to return Crimea.