Could Russia's referendums in Ukraine be a gamechanger?

By redrawing the map, Moscow might give itself the pretext to use nuclear weapons - whether it uses them or not

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets officials in the city of Veliky Novgorod on Wednesday. AP Photo
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There can be little doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s televised address on Wednesday represents a significant escalation in the Ukraine conflict on a number of levels.

At a time when the Russian military has been suffering significant setbacks on the Ukrainian battlefield, Mr Putin has been under pressure to turn the tide of the war in Moscow’s favour.

And, in his long-anticipated address, he delivered a series of measures, as well as threats, that he hopes will enable Moscow to achieve the goals in Ukraine that he set out at the beginning of the conflict nearly seven months ago.

By far the most eye-catching measure he announced was the mobilisation of 300,000 reservists to help boost the Kremlin’s faltering war effort.

Ever since Moscow launched its so-called “special military operation” in February, the Kremlin has resisted calls from ultra-nationalist supporters to implement a nationwide mobilisation, due in large part of its own view that the Ukraine mission could be accomplished by its existing military establishment. Another important consideration is that implementing a mobilisation would mean placing the country on a war footing, which would raise Russia’s involvement in the conflict at an entirely different level, one that might strengthen support for anti-war protesters in the country.

Thus, Mr Putin studiously avoided any talk of mobilisation during May’s anniversary parades marking the end of the Second World War, when several commentators believed he would call for a mass mobilisation.

On the contrary, the Kremlin has continued to insist that, as Russia’s military operation was going according to plan, there was no need for additional measures. This line has been repeated continuously despite Russia suffering a number of setbacks, from its failed attempt to capture the capital Kyiv at the beginning of the conflict to the more recent heavy losses it has sustained around the north-eastern city of Kharkiv, where Ukraine’s surprise offensive this month has resulted in the recapture of about 5,000 square kilometres of territory.

The fact, therefore, that Mr Putin has now called for the mobilisation is a tacit acknowledgement that the military operation is experiencing difficulties, and that Russia’s forces are in desperate need of extra men and equipment if they are to achieve their objectives.

But rather than accept responsibility for the setbacks, he has blamed his country’s difficulties on western countries such as the UK and the US, which have provided Ukraine with the sophisticated weaponry that has enabled Ukrainian forces to go on the offensive.

Mr Putin insisted that the first mobilisation undertaken in Russia since the Second World War had been necessary because of the West’s involvement in the conflict, which he claimed “wants to destroy our country” and was trying to “turn Ukraine’s people into cannon fodder". Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu echoed similar sentiments, conceding that conditions in Ukraine were “difficult”, and that Russia was at war with “the collective West”.

Mr Putin’s conviction would also explain his threat to resort to nuclear weapons if Russian territory came under attack, a statement that has understandably raised concerns that the conflict could ultimately provoke nuclear armageddon.

From the beginning of the conflict, Nato has taken great care not to become involved in a direct confrontation with Moscow, preferring instead to take a backseat role, providing the Ukrainians with weapons, but leaving the actual fighting to the Ukrainian military, which has solely been confined to the liberation of Ukrainian territory.

But the situation on the battlefield could change dramatically as a result of the referendums that are soon to be held in Russian-controlled territory in eastern and southern Ukraine, which are likely to result in their formal annexation by Moscow.

Once that happens, the Kremlin will be able to claim that any attack on the newly annexed territories of Ukraine is actually an attack against Russia. And by threatening to use nuclear weapons in response to an attack on Russian territory, Mr Putin is hoping to persuade the West to drop its support for Ukraine, a move that would severely diminish Kyiv’s war effort.

In some respects, the deliberate reference to nuclear weapons may be seen as a sign of desperation, the act of a leadership that realises that hopes of securing victory in Ukraine are fading by the day.

On Wednesday, the defence ministry gave its first official estimate of its battlefield losses since March, announcing that 5,937 soldiers had been killed. But this figure is disputed by western intelligence, which claims the real figure is significantly higher, with up to 80,000 soldiers killed or wounded. That amounts to the loss of more than half of the force that was initially deployed.

Nor is there any sign that Mr Putin’s nuclear threats will lead western leaders to review their support for Ukraine. In his address to the UN General Assembly, US President Joe Biden reiterated Washington’s support for the Ukrainian cause, while UK Prime Minister Liz Truss has promised to provide the same level of military support next year.

As long as the West remains committed to supporting Ukraine, Moscow’s objective of achieving a decisive victory is likely to remain an elusive dream.

Published: September 22, 2022, 2:28 PM