Referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk

Russia apparently wants to incorporate the “people’s republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk and the south-east of Ukraine as quickly as possible. At the same time, there are signs of preparations for mobilization – a risky response to the Ukrainian counter-offensive.

Graffito for the murdered irregular leader Arsen Pavlov, known as Motorola, in Donetsk.

Darko Vojinovic / AP

So now everything should go very quickly. Within 24 hours, the question of how the Russian leadership intends to deal with the consequences of the Ukrainian counter-offensive has taken on new contours. Already at the end of this week – from September 23 to 27 – referendums on the annexation of the territories to the Russian Federation are to be held in the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk as well as the Russian-occupied areas of Kherson and Zaporizhia in south-eastern Ukraine.

The “presidents” of the “people’s republics” took up what was presented as an initiative from below in no time at all. Their parliaments approved the project on Tuesday afternoon. The State Duma in Moscow has already said that the will of the people will be taken into account.

Response to Ukrainian counter-offensive

That’s like a turnaround. Referendums in the Donbass and in the occupied territories on union with Russia have been an issue since the spring. However, the unexpectedly slow advance of Russian troops in the Ukrainian region of Donetsk and the force of the Ukrainian counter-offensive along the entire front line from Kharkiv to Cherson had temporarily slowed down the project.

The assumption that an early referendum before the complete capture of the Donetsk region and the securing of the strategically even more important conquests in the south-east for Russia is risky still applies. It has even become more topical since the Ukrainian army controlled the territory of the Luhansk region again for the first time since the summer with the town of Belohorivka and took the city of Liman, which belongs to the Donetsk region, into its vises.

But now it is being used by exponents of the Russian power elite for the counter-argument: Russia’s rapid annexation of the territories under pressure from the Ukrainian army is intended to provide them with political security, so to speak. The reasoning behind this is that any future attack on these areas will be considered an attack on Russia. Ukraine and NATO – which the propaganda portrays as the real military opponent – ​​would be careful not to do this with weapons supplied by the West, in order to avoid a direct confrontation between Russia and the transatlantic alliance.

“Either our imminent victory is at hand – or nuclear war”, wrote the editor-in-chief of the Russian international broadcaster RT, Margarita Simonyanon their social networks. Dmitry Medvedev, the Deputy Chairman of the Security Council and former Russian President, was the first high-ranking official to assign the highest importance to the events even before the dates for the plebiscite were announced. The decision will not only be important for the defense of Donbass citizens, but will define Russia’s development for decades to come, he said. The land gain confirms the irreversibility of the changed geopolitical situation.

Questionable will of the people

The haste in scheduling the referendums shows that the main thing is to create facts as quickly as possible. The legitimacy of the exercise is obviously entirely secondary. It is doubtful that, under free conditions, there would be a majority for the request everywhere. The plebiscites will now take place in an atmosphere of fear and terror. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated on Tuesday what he and President Vladimir Putin said immediately after the attack on Ukraine: it is about giving the citizens of Ukraine the opportunity to determine their own fate.

This, however, is a double mockery. A large majority of Ukrainians – especially in the south-east of the country – had elected Volodymyr Zelenskiy as president in 2019 and had a say in the leadership of Kiev, which Moscow denounced as the “Nazi regime”. Very few waited for the Russians. In addition, it is well known, also from the reports on the conditions in the occupied territories, that the Kremlin is concerned with its own fantasies of power and not with the fate of individual citizens.

In the “People’s Republics” and the conquered territories, there is panic about the success of the Ukrainians and their reckoning with collaborators. The residents pack their bags and flee to Russia. Apparently those voices in the Kremlin have prevailed that consider it devastating for Russia’s reputation if the promise of Russian “protection” is gambled away. In doing so, Putin is taking a considerable risk. The Ukrainians will not be impressed by the votes. At the same time, the Kremlin is making it clear that, contrary to what Putin recently suggested in Samarkand, it does not have peace negotiations in mind.

But a mobilization of the army?

The debate about mobilizing the army and imposing martial law also gained new impetus. The State Duma passed in summary proceedings and without dissenting votes tightening of the law, which provides for high prison sentences for offenses committed by military personnel “during mobilization and in a state of war”. These include desertion, voluntary surrender to captivity, looting and conscientious objection. The penalties that are to be imposed on conscientious objectors and reservists are also explosive. The latter could again lead to the exodus of young men.

Even partial mobilization would shake up Russian society and put the regime to the test. A majority had so far suppressed what was happening in the Ukraine; that would change. The debate about mobilization and the desperate efforts to recruit new fighters for the war – recently increasingly among foreigners willing to naturalize – testify to the impasse into which the Kremlin boss and his henchmen have led Russia.

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