Image by Ministry of Defense of Ukraine
Seven months after Russia launched the so-called ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, the Kremlin has decided to raise the stakes. It seems to be a matter of time before Moscow incorporates the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, as well as southern Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia into the Russian Federation – a move that will undoubtedly lead to further escalation of the conflict.
On September 20 leaders of the Donbass republics set out plans for referenda on joining Russia. In an apparently coordinated move, Russia-controlled military-civilian administrations of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions also announced their plans to hold a plebiscite on becoming part of the Russian Federation. Referenda are scheduled for September 23-27, and the results will be published on September 28. After that, the four regions will send the official request to Moscow, and the Kremlin is expected to act promptly, which means that by the end of October Russia might de facto and de jure get new territories.
The problem for Moscow, however, is the vast majority of the United Nations members will not recognize the results of the referendums, and will continue to see the Donbass, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia as part of Ukraine. The Kremlin, for its part, will treat the territories as an integral part of the Russian Federation, meaning that – from the Russian perspective – any Ukrainian attack on Donetsk, Kherson or Melitopol will represent an attack on Russia. That is why Moscow seems to be preparing to fight an “all-out war”.
On September 20 Russian President Vladimir Putin held a meeting with bosses of the country’s military-industrial complex, urging them to boost production of weapons and ammunition. He emphasized the Russian Armed forces must receive the necessary equipment “as soon as possible”, and that Russia must ensure “a one hundred percent import substitution” in the field of military industry. More importantly, Russia’s lower chamber of parliament, the State Duma, has passed a bill introducing the concepts of “mobilization” and “martial law” into the Criminal Code, which suggests that the Kremlin intends to soon change the form of its special military operation in Ukraine.
It remains to be seen how he Russian sanctions-hit economy will manage to adapt to a new reality, and increase production of military hardware. Unlike the Soviet Union, that was a relatively self-sufficient country, Russia’s military-industrial complex is dependent on the import of various components. Thus, in order to ensure “a one hundred percent import substitution”, Russia would have to completely transform its current neo-liberal economic model. It is not impossible for Moscow do make such a move, although it is a long-term process, and it is rather questionable if time is on the Russian side.
The West will undoubtedly continue supplying all sorts of weapons to Ukraine. Moreover, Kyiv will likely attempt to restore control over significant parts of the Donbas and southern Ukrainian regions before they officially become part of the Russian Federation. But even afterwards, Kyiv will unlikely stop fighting. The only difference is that Russia will fight the war on de facto its own territory, which means that Moscow can implement its military doctrine and eventually use nuclear weapons.
“Judging by what is happening and what is about to happen, this week marks either the threshold of our imminent victory or the threshold of a nuclear war. I can’t see any third option”, said Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the Russian state-owned broadcaster RT.
As the United States President Joe Biden recently stressed, using nuclear weapons would “change the face of war unlike anything since World War II”. Although such a scenario is not improbable, at this point it is more realistic that Russia will attempt to change the situation on the ground by deploying more troops to Ukraine. That is one of the reasons why Putin declared a partial mobilization on September 21. For the foreseeable future, Moscow will likely continue implementing short-term solutions, but eventually it might be forced to take some radical steps.
Russian political leadership is quite aware that a military defeat in Ukraine could have dramatic consequences for the very existence of the Russian Federation. Still, it remains unclear if Moscow is determined to fight “until victory”, or if it will continue seeking to reach a deal with Kyiv. Thus, even a potential use of tactical nuclear weapons could represent a method of pressure on Ukraine to sign a peace deal under the Russian conditions.
Even though Russia has decided to mobilize 300,000 reservists, there is no guarantee that such a move will help the Russian military to seize more territory. Mobilization itself is not a magic wand. It takes time to prepare troops for fighting. But does Russia have time?
Finally, it remains to be seen if the Russian political leadership still aims to establish full control over all of Ukraine and achieve the original goals of its “special military operation”, or if it now sees the Donbass, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia as a “consolation prize” in a “new cold War” between Russia and the West.