To annex, or not to annex, that is (maybe?) the question

September 19, 2022

This morning I woke up to the entire Russian and Ukrainian blogosphere/Telegram abuzz with news from the banana republics Donetsk and Luhansk. It all apparently started when the Civic Chamber of Luhansk demanded from the “head of LNR” Pasechnik that the government immediately conduct a referendum about joining the Russian Federation. Then it transpired that the Civic Chamber of Donetsk had directed a similar demand to the “head of DNR” Pushilin. Then the DNR head released a video that appears to show him making a phone call to the LNR head, in which they shared the news about the astonishing coincidence and promised to coordinate the requests. A few hours later, the LNR head clarified that “immediately” does not really mean what people think it means, and that there can be no talk about specific dates and deadlines yet. What’s going on?

It’s useful to know that the eventual annexation of Donbas has always been among the territorial ambitions of Putin, and one of the reasons for this invasion. This, and the regions of Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson, plus the land connection to Transnistria that would deprive Ukraine of access to both the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. When he accepted their declarations of independence at the outset of the special operation, Putin indicated his commitment to that annexation — there is no scenario in which Donbas can be an independent state, let alone two. Since, preparations for referenda that would officially ask for annexation have been underway in all these regions (except, as far as I know, Kharkiv since it became clear early on that the Russians could not take the city). The Gautleiters of LNR/DNR have also periodically stated that the referenda are coming any time now.

For months, however, the referenda have been postponed, with the Russians always citing security issues (protecting the safety of voters) as the reason. Most observers think that Russia cannot conduct even sham referenda on territories that are not fully under its control. When Moscow finished the conquest of Luhansk in July, the expectation was that the referendum would still follow. Kherson has been occupied since March, and so one should be expected there as well. Donetsk and Zaporizhzhie turned out to be more problematic because Russia has so far failed to come out to the administrative borders of either. The delays are said to have come from this — Putin is simply waiting for his armies to complete the conquests before going through with the “referenda.”

Why is this sudden urge to stage them? There is no doubt how the referenda will turn out, and that nobody except Russia, Eritrea, and maybe North Korea, would recognize them. From that perspective, conducting the referenda is equivalent to the Kremlin annexing the territories. It’s not like Putin could say no if they asked, and it’s not like they could ask unless he told them to. This is why Kyiv has warned that any referendum conducted on occupied territories would mean an automatic end to any negotiations, and a commitment to fight the war to the end.

There are several theories about why the “heads” suddenly started talking about “joining Russia.”

Local initiative. In this view, the “heads” are simply verbalizing the spontaneous and natural requests of the populations they govern. This is the version the Kremlin wants you to believe, and this is the least likely scenario. The “heads” do not do anything that has not been pre-approved and triple-signed by the Kremlin. As ventriloquist dummies for Moscow, the “heads” are just repeating what some of the “Kremlin Towers” (informal name for the various factions) told them to say. The question is, which one?

To understand that, let’s see what the consequences of annexation might be. The territories will legally become part of the Russian Federation (at least for internal purposes), and so Ukrainian attacks there automatically turn into attacks on Russia. Then, the regime can declare war, initiate mobilization, strike at all sorts of Ukrainian civilian targets, and even threaten escalation with nuclear weapons (under its defense doctrine). This could scare Ukraine’s supporters into pressuring Kyiv to agree to a cease-fire that leaves Russia in possession of the territories it grabbed, and some additional gains in the South.

At least, that seems to be the thinking. The reasons for the urgency are: the successful Ukrainian counter-offensive in on the Kharkiv-Izyum front, the continuing operations toward Luhansk and Kherson, Russia’s inability to break down the Ukrainian defenses in Donetsk, and the apparently dismal results from the Samarkand meeting (where it became abundantly clear that Putin’s two potential “aces up his sleeve,” India and China are both pressuring him to end the war). The results of the hidden mobilization have not been encouraging because too many people refuse to serve. This would no longer be possible after the declaration of martial law and/or war. There are just not enough convicts and mercenaries to replenish the ranks of the Russian forces fighting in Ukraine, and so reservists and draftees would have to be thrown in. All of this, plus the “more credible” threat to use nukes or blow up hydro stations just might be enough to compel Kyiv/West to capitulate.

If this is the scenario being worked out, then there are two possible Kremlin towers that could have pushed the “heads” into the recent declarations.

Gambit of the Imperialists. The under-hawks have gotten increasingly vocal, and critical, of the special military operation. It’s not just war criminal Ghirkin/Strelkov, but even some propagandists like Mikhalkov (who hinted at treason in the Kremlin in his latest polemic). In their reading of the situation, Russia is fighting a war with the West/NATO through their Ukrainian proxy, and the Kremlin is not doing it properly. They demand full mobilization, a declaration of war, and conquest of all Ukraine even at the cost of war with the West. Some of them believe they are restoring Russian greatness, others — that they are correcting historic injustices, and yet others — that they are saving Russia from annihilation. They believe, correctly, that Russia is losing the war. They also believe, incorrectly, that the Putin regime can pull a rabbit out of a hat to reverse that outcome. And so, they want to force his hand.

Some support for this explanation can be found in the fact that the LNR “head” started mincing words soon after the declarations of coordination and mutual support with DNR. It sure sounds to me like he got a call from a tower a bit higher than the one that sent him the original instructions. Putin will not allow himself to be outmaneuvered by the people who brought him “Kyiv in 3-days,” “Ukrainian Women Will Welcome Us with Flowers,” “Let’s Dine on the Khreshchatik Tonight,” and similar recent hits. He wants the annexations, but all in due course.

Putin’s Desperate Gamble. The other, and much more troubling, possibility is that Putin orchestrated this. (The backtracking by the LNR “head” can then be read as a correction — the excited “heads” just got a bit too cavalier with their timing statements, which perhaps were supposed to be a bit more vague; nobody wants to set deadlines and then fail to meet them.) If so, this can be either a bold bluff — trying the West to drop support for Ukraine out of fear of escalation (watch for articles by Realists in tomorrow’s newspapers!) — or a desperate gamble. The play here would be that Putin has decided on mobilization because he can see no other way to stem the Ukrainian advance (even in Kherson his military is being slowly pushed back), and this will give him a chance to conduct it. If this also scares the West, all the better, but it’s no bluff — he’s going va banque for all the marbles.

The hope would be that Russia could keep the territories it annexes through these referenda, and in return promises to leave Kherson and Zaporizhzhie. This might appear reasonable to useful idiots in the West, for whom even trading all the land east of the Dnipro River seemed reasonable, and so they wil turn on the screws on Zelenskyy, who will do it even though the Ukrainians will probably string him from a lamp-post an hour after he signs the capitulation instrument, right before becoming partisans en masse. That’s the hope, anyway.

The problem with this is that I do not see how the gamble improves the strategic situation of Russia. As I have written before, mobilization is not going to solve the manpower problem in the immediate/short term. Yes, it will bring new men into the ranks (but they will need a couple of months of training, at the very least). Yes, it will make it difficult to evade service (but this just means a lot more people with dubious morale on the front). Yes, it will allow to move the economy to “wartime footing” (but this will not solve the shortage of parts and technology). Yes, it will produce more officers (but they will either be veterans from the Afghanistan War or young and inexperienced). And then there’s the pesky problems with supplying them (there are credible reports of serious shortages even with winter clothing, let alone ammo), or arming them (the Russians have started to dismantle some of the defenses around St. Petersburg to transfer the equipment to Ukraine).

Whether declaring Donbas Russian suddenly generates a wave of enthusiasm for fighting — and dying — there, is also unclear. I think not — Russians may have been zombified by years of insane propaganda but it’s very difficult to see how eastern Ukraine is going to magically cause them to sing “Rise, O endless Motherland, rise to a mortal fight” again.

If the West calls the bluff — as it is likely to do because the above should be obvious to any analyst — then it will inevitably reject the referenda, denounce the annexation, slap harder sanctions on Russia (yes, there are plenty of others things we can be doing that we are not right now), and deliver even more weapons to Ukraine. Putin’s threats of nuclear war will be just as effective as when he made them before.

So what is going to happen next? I suspect that Kyiv will warn, again, and very firmly, that any attempt to conduct “referenda” on occupied territories will result in no further negotiations until military victory. This is not going to change anything in Moscow though since they already know this. A more effective threat — and yes, we must threaten because nothing else affects the guys in the Kremlin — would be that if Russia annexes any new Ukrainian territory, the US would remove all restrictions on the types of weapons that it sends to Ukraine (except nuclear, of course). One benefit from not providing all sorts of weapons immediately — and I am not sure if this was part of the calculus although I do know that Washington has taken Moscow’s warnings more seriously than it should have — is that the implicit threat is always there: “if you do something that we really do not like, then we are going to start sending those weapons that you really hate as well.” Given how effective even “crappier” Western weapons have been in the hands of Ukrainians, the threat to give them some really good stuff could be enough of a deterrent. The US could also threaten to remove (informal) constraints on where Ukrainians can strike, which would bring a significant part of Russia within range of the ZSU. This is what Zaluzhnyi had asked for in his article earlier this month, and it will definitely affect the Kremlin’s “sense of impunity” with which it has hitherto operated.

If these calls for referenda do not die off over the next couple of days, the war will enter an escalatory phase because Putin has backed himself into a corner.

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