The rapidly unfolding events in Russia are effectively transforming the conflict in Ukraine from a “special operation” on someone else’s territory into a war to defend so-called Russian land.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has upped the ante in his war on Ukraine, announcing a partial mobilization on September 21, meaning 300,000 reserve soldiers can now be sent to fight in Ukraine.
The day before, without prior announcement, amendments to the Russian law were presented to the Duma and immediately adopted in three readings. They provide for severe penalties for failure to report for military service, surrender or refusal to fight.
On the same day, Russian-imposed administrations in all regions of Ukraine currently partially or fully occupied by Russian troops filed demands to hold referendums on joining Russia as early as the end of this week.
The message sent to the West by the combination of these three developments is: “You have chosen to fight us in Ukraine, now try to fight us in Russia itself, or, to be precise, what we call Russia. The hope is that the West will balk at this.
Meanwhile, at home, these events transform the conflict from a “special operation” on someone else’s territory into a fight to defend the so-called Russian land, granting the Kremlin almost unlimited rights in terms requests that it can address to the general public.
The idea of foreign troops crossing Russia’s borders, even if the border is not where it was yesterday, is used by Putin to justify the reconfiguration of the “special operation” in war, the launching of a partial mobilization and the intensification of the threat to use nuclear weapons. In his September 21 speech, Putin said, “Those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the prevailing winds can turn in their direction.” Russia could also start targeting Ukrainian sites it was previously hesitant to attack.
The truth is that time is not on Moscow’s side and the human, material and diplomatic resources needed for the “special operation” are running out, prompting Putin to take decisive action in an attempt to end the the war as quickly as possible, to cut its losses and keep its gains. If he fails to end the war, then he can at least blame it on other people and turn his invasion of a neighboring country into a defensive war, in the hope that this distinction will make the more legitimate conflict. in the eyes of ordinary Russians, leaving the Kremlin free to make any decisions and take any actions it deems necessary. The problem is that opponents of Russia do not believe that Russia is entitled to any of its gains in this war.
Since the start of the war, there has been a split within the Russian regime between the war party and the “special operation” party. The latter party believed that only professional soldiers should be involved in the conflict and that it should remain on the periphery of everyday life, which should largely continue as normal.
The war party, on the other hand, believes that the invasion of Ukraine should fundamentally change everything in Russia, from the economy to cultural and daily life. This party supports full mobilization and wants to see the confiscation of business assets and an end to the consumer culture in Russia.
For a long time it seemed to Russian leaders that the best course of action was to maintain the semblance of ordinary life, and that a market economy and a consumer society were the best guarantee of resistance to sanctions. Now, all of that could change.
In Putin’s logic, he was not lying when he insisted that Russia was not at war with Ukraine and was carrying out a limited “special operation” there. Because Russia has not deployed all its troops there, has avoided carpet bombs and, above all, has largely avoided sending conscripts to fight in Ukraine.
Moreover, the operation was planned to last for months and not years: the officials made no secret of this, and this corresponds entirely to Putin’s modus operandi as a former intelligence officer. His rise to the Kremlin at the end of 1999; the decimation of the NTV television channel and the oil and gas company Yukos; the choice of a successor to Putin in 2008; his return to power in 2011-2012; amending the constitution to reset presidential terms; and even the Second Chechen War and the annexation of Crimea were all fought within the time frame (up to six months) of a special operation.
Until recently, therefore, Putin was firmly on the “special military ops” side, if not its leader. But the war has been raging for seven months, and now Ukraine is fighting back and regaining some of its lost territory. The chaotic retreat of the Russian army from Kharkiv heralded a victory for the party of war and mobilization.
Logically, this setback could have led to the indefinite postponement or abandonment of referendum projects in the occupied areas. After all, it is far more shameful to lose a part of one’s own country than an occupied territory of undefined status. Nor can you simply abandon your own territory to reinforce other parts of the front, as Russia explained its actions in Kharkiv.
The fact that the Kremlin has taken a completely opposite approach and set impending dates for referendums almost seems like some kind of superstitious attempt to free itself from a curse. For while it is generally accepted among Russians that their country could suffer military defeat beyond its own borders, in a people’s war on their own land, Russia will always win. So the logic seems to be that if the Kremlin makes the occupied land part of Russia, as it once was, then victory is assured.
The legal redefinition of the occupied areas as Russian territory is unlikely to end attempts to retake them, but it will help the Kremlin solve several problems. Seizing entire regions of another country with the participation of a few troops requires the cooperation of a significant proportion of the local population. So far, Moscow has found enough Ukrainians (although far fewer than it hoped when it launched its invasion) who are either pro-Russian or simply indifferent enough to rule the occupied regions. . But after the Russian withdrawal from Kharkiv, when collaborators have been left behind, people will be more reluctant to cooperate. The referendums send a message to the inhabitants of the occupied territories that Russia’s territorial intentions are serious.
Another problem has been the number of contract soldiers who have refused to fight in Ukraine on the grounds that under the terms of their contracts they are not obliged to participate in combat on foreign territory. Declaring the occupied Ukrainian regions as part of Russia would remove these grounds.
Russian officials have always said that the objectives of the “special operation” will be achieved, come what may. This wording was convenient, because the objectives were so vague that they could be changed at any time. If it proved impossible to take all of Ukraine, Russia could limit itself to taking the south and the east of the country. If this proved impossible, it could be limited to the territory of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. If this could not be done (as it is currently not), Russia could stop at what it already has and improve the status of its spoils of war by turning them into new regions of Russia . After all, the main objective was not the prize itself, but to have the opportunity and the resolve to win it, thus demonstrating that Russia was not fooling around and that it had the right to do it.
In recent weeks, this virtual production has been almost entirely canceled. In an attempt to restore it, Putin is once again upping the ante hoping that the other parties involved will stop where they are. If he is wrong again, he will have to show that he did not bluff. He can resort to even more disastrous means to do so.