Is Russia panicking on the political front? Moscow and the pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk want to hold a snap referendum on whether the oblasts should officially become part of Russia. The model for this move is similar to what happened in Crimea in 2014. If Russia claimed the areas as its property, Ukrainian attacks would be considered acts of war against Moscow.
Two other occupied regions are believed to prefer holding a referendum to join Russia – Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. The vote could happen later this week, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to make a speech extolling the virtues of the plan. The polls will probably be rigged, The Guardian said on Sept. 20. Declaring the oblasts as part of Russia would enable the Kremlin to declare war and escalate the fight even more by claiming the Ukrainians are attacking Russian territory.
Russia’s lower house, the Duma, also passed a ruling that would make it a crime for military personnel to surrender or desert. Offenders could face ten years in jail. So far, Putin has resisted calling for universal conscription to supplement Russian troops in Ukraine. Putin is also rallying the country’s defense industry to produce more weapons systems.
Russia Is In Bad Shape Militarily
The Kremlin is encouraging the referendums even though they are a drastic maneuver, because the military situation in Ukraine has become untenable for Moscow. Ukraine is taking over huge areas that were recently controlled by Russia. The referendum scheme does not make much sense, as Russia does not control all of the pro-Russian areas.
As the Institute for the Study of War reported, “Partial annexation at this stage would also place the Kremlin in the strange position of demanding that Ukrainian forces un-occupy ‘Russian’ territory, and the humiliating position of being unable to enforce that demand. It remains very unclear that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be willing to place himself in such a bind for the dubious benefit of making it easier to threaten NATO or Ukraine with escalation he remains highly unlikely to conduct at this stage.”
Since the Russian military has been backed into a corner, it has ramped up strikes on non-military targets to intimidate Kyiv. Russian artillery hit a nuclear power plant in southern Mykolaiv, although the damage was not bad enough to affect the plant’s reactor. On Sept. 17, CNN reported that 30 areas in Ukraine had been hit by ground-launched missiles, airplanes, and multiple-launch rocket systems.
One Star Is Speaking Out
In a sign that Russia’s grip on its own population’s support for the war is slipping, one of the country’s popular music stars is speaking out against the war. Celebrity Alla Pugacheva has shown solidarity with her husband, who has criticized the war. She told her 3.5 million Instagram followers that Russians are “dying for illusory aims that make our country a pariah.”
Putin hopes that creating a situation in which Russia annexes territory will boost military and public morale and goose his approval ratings, much in the way that the annexation of Crimea turned into a propaganda win for the Russian leader. But militarily, this gambit will not likely help. Russia is still depending on missiles and rockets hitting civilian areas. These strikes have been destructive to Ukraine, but they have not damaged Kyiv’s will to fight.
You Can’t Legislate a Military Win
The Duma enacting legislation to punish Russian soldiers for deserting or surrendering is another desperate move, and it shows that lawmakers are worried about Russian troops capitulating and running for cover, or quitting the battlefield. Real soldiers stand and fight without legislators telling them how to conduct military operations. Punitive legislative pushes may frustrate and frighten soldiers even more. Morale is already low, and Russia is not even paying wounded soldiers.
Pugacheva’s protest could open the door for other celebrities to question the war. But social media sites such as Instagram have been blocked in Russia since March, so the Instagram post only reached Russian citizens who have downloaded virtual private networks to get around Moscow’s censorship of the Internet. It is doubtful that a large majority of Pugacheva’s followers saw the critical post, but it has been reported on extensively in Western media, which could blow back against the Kremlin.
Look for Russian troops to continue to fire missiles and rockets at non-combatant infrastructure. The annexation votes will likely be faked to show that a large majority of people in breakaway regions support the measure. But it will not change the military facts on the ground. Those clearly show Russia losing territory.
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.