Today (21 September), exactly seven months after he made a televised address foreshadowing the invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has given another speech to his country doubling down on the war. The Russian president announced a “partial mobilisation”, with the armed forces calling up its reserves, on the spurious ground that they would ensure territorial integrity and protect”people in Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine – territories that will hold dubious votes on joining Russia in the coming days. Putin also issued a barely veiled nuclear threat to Ukraine and to the West: “If its territorial integrity is threatened Russia will use all the means at its disposal. This is not a bluff.” Like his address in February, three days before his forces invaded Ukraine, the speech signalled an alarming escalation.
It has been clear for some time that Putin is running out of options to avoid a humiliating defeat in Ukraine. His forces are rapidly losing ground in the country’s north-east and coming under renewed pressure on the southern and eastern fronts. Some analysts wondered whether the astonishing success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in recent weeks might finally make clear to Putin that he cannot win the war, and that he should seek, at a minimum, a temporary halt to the fighting. This week it became clear that would not happen.
On 20 September, in a clearly co-ordinated sequence of events, pro-Kremlin officials in four occupied regions of Ukraine – Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia – announced plans to hold referendums on joining Russia from 23 to 27 September. They ignored the fact that Russian forces do not fully control any of these regions, or that the polls would be illegal under international law. In some cases the voting is expected to take place online, presumably to make the results easier to falsify.
Before Putin’s speech Western governments made clear they would not recognise the referendums. Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, immediately rejected the planned votes as a “sham” and said that the US would “never recognise this territory as anything other than a part of Ukraine”. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, called the plans a “parody” and said the results would not be recognised by the international community. “If the Donbas referendum idea wasn’t so tragic it would be funny,” he said.
Yet there is a sinister logic behind the idea from Moscow’s perspective. By going through the charade of holding these votes and annexing these regions, as he did with Crimea in 2014, Putin will then be able claim, however cynically, that any further attacks on this territory will be treated as an attack on Russia itself and subject to the most serious consequences. His pointed statement on 21 September about Russia using “all the means at its disposal” clearly laid this out. (The former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, who traded places with Putin from 2008 to 2012, and is now the deputy chairman of the Russia’s security council, has also previously warned of a “Judgement Day” response if Ukrainian forces target the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, invoking the threat of nuclear weapons.) Russian military doctrine allows for the use of nuclear weapons in a situation where the state is deemed to be facing an existential threat from conventional weapons – although it is not clear whether an attack on Russian-claimed territory in Ukraine would meet this bar.
Still, perhaps Putin believes that the threat alone will cause Ukraine’s supporters in the West to baulk and put pressure on Kyiv to slow its advance. Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of the Russian political analysis firm R Politik, described the Kremlin’s decision to hold votes and move to annex the territories as an “absolutely unequivocal ultimatum from Russia to Ukraine and the West”. As she summed it up, “Either Ukraine is retreating, or a nuclear war.”
On the same day that the planned referendums were announced, the Russian parliament passed a bill to increase punishments for offences such as desertion or refusing to fight during a mobilisation. This has stoked rumours that Putin is preparing to draft more Russian citizens to boost his flagging forces in Ukraine, although as recently as last week his spokesman said nationwide mobilisation was not under consideration, and such a move would carry significant domestic political risks. Though his announcement on 21 September does contradict his spokesman, by only declaring a “partial mobilisation” of army reserves, Putin is clearly still wary of triggering backlash at home.
Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 was celebrated in Russia as a political and strategic victory. Even the late Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who had criticised Putin’s authoritarian rule, described it at the time as a “happy event”. The gambit secured control of the strategically important port of Sevastopol, where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is headquartered, and which Moscow had previously been forced to lease from Kyiv. Back then, the Ukrainian military was a fraction of its current strength and, after a brief stand-off, Ukrainian troops on the peninsula handed over their bases without a fight. The response to any attempt to claim more Ukrainian territory this time will be very different.
Arriving in New York for the UN General Assembly the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, called the plan to stage votes an “act of desperation”. He may be right, but this does not make the days and weeks ahead any less ominous. Assuming that Ukraine keeps fighting and calls Putin’s bluff, it is unclear what happens next. The most dangerous phase of this war is still ahead.