What military strategy behind the referendums in the regions occupied by Russia?

What military strategy behind the referendums in the regions occupied by Russia?

After almost eight months of “special military operation” in Ukraine led by Russia, is the conflict at a turning point? The Vladimir Putin’s official speech this Wednesday announcing the partial mobilization of 300,000 reservists and accusing the West of wanting to “destroy” Russia marks the rise of tensions. The organization of referendums on the annexation of the Ukrainian regions occupied by the Russian army, namely Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporozhyeannounced on Tuesday, is also part of this new stage of the war.

From September 23 to 27, the inhabitants of these regions lost by kyiv are called to the polls to say whether or not they want to be attached to Russia. The results of these votes “hastily organized, neither fair nor equitable, in which the Ukrainian media and political parties cannot participate and for which international observers come from European parties of the complacent far-right” are known from advance, comment Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean, Director of the Russia/NIS Center at Ifri (French Institute of International Relations), contacted by 20 minutes. These referenda have in fact been described as “parody”, “fictitious” or even “simulacra” by various Heads of State, including Emmanuel Macron. These elections are nevertheless not insignificant and their haste reflects a military strategy of Moscow.

Justify the call for conscripts

Once the “yes” wins [car il l’emportera même si la population est contre], Russia will be able to consider these territories as belonging to it, which somewhat changes the face of the conflict. So far referred to as ” special military operation If Ukraine tries to take over the regions by force, it will indeed be considered an official war by Moscow. A war in which she must defend her territory. Which changes the rules. This will initially allow the Russian army “to mobilize forces” in these territories, to strengthen the ranks, explains to 20 minutes Michel Goya, former naval colonel, historian and strategist. Thus, as announced for the Russian territory on Wednesday, Moscow will be able to call on conscripts, as has already happened for the Crimea annexed.

Will the West continue military aid to Ukraine if it attacks territories that Russia considers its own? This is what Vladimir Putin is counting on. »

“It’s not a bluff, threatened the head of the Kremlin in his speech on Wednesday. We will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. I say all the means”. Has Vladimir Putin once again brandished the nuclear threat? If Ukraine attacks one of these territories which will be considered as belonging to Russia, Moscow could brandish the excuse of a threat against its essential vital interests and use the ultimate weapon. “There are many other weapons before nuclear weapons, such as very large bombs”, reminds 20 minutes Cédric Mas, military historian, observer of the conflict and president of the Action Résilience institute. Nevertheless, the new legal status of the territories which will be annexed from Friday in itself facilitates the justification for the use of atomic weapons. “Even if the probability remains very low, we are getting closer to it,” concedes Michel Goya.

Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean also points to two “currents” on the issue among experts: those who believe that Russia has no interest in doing so, that it is only a bluff to make Westerners back down, that that would banish it from nations and even deprive it of support from neutral countries like China or India. On the other hand, others believe “that from the moment Vladimir Putin engulfed himself in this war, he cannot lose it, because he risks everything, including his power and his own survival and he is able to take the leap. This step would then likely result in a tactical nuclear attack “with a strike, say, of Serpents’ Island or some other depopulated place as a warning.” “Nothing is automatic, but I see all the ingredients for this type of climbing are there on the table – will they be mixed into an explosive? The risk is not zero,” adds Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean.

An escalation to bend the West

This threat is in any case the speech of the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin “plays on fears and this verbal escalation is not new”, underlines Cédric Mas. He had promised violent reprisals in the event of an attack on Crimea, yet nothing happened when a ammunition depot was targeted this summer in the peninsula. “It’s to scare, to bend Western supporters of kyiv, whose public opinion is Ukraine’s weak point. Because, despite all the determination of the Ukrainian people not to concede any square meter of their territory to the Russians, they will not be able to achieve this without the military aid provided by the West” and “one weakens when one panics on the nuclear”, abounds the military historian.

“The strategy is to present the adversary with a fait accompli and to stop him by letting a strong threat hover. I doubt that will stop any Ukrainians, but the big question is the attitude of Westerners. Will they continue military aid to Ukraine if it attacks the territories that Russia will consider as its own? This is what Vladimir Putin is counting on,” insists Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean.

An admission of difficulties on the ground

Moved forward to September 23 when they were scheduled for November, the annexation votes also acknowledge a certain admission of difficulty on the ground. For several weeks, the Ukrainian army has been advancing and celebrates victories when the Russian army suffers defeats. This precipitation translates “a panic, a headlong rush”, deciphers Cédric Mas. “We needed a strong reaction to the decline on the ground and a way to justify these actions,” adds Michel Goya.

It is also a way for the Russian president to stay the course in his internal propaganda and to justify past or future battles. These annexations will be presented as small victories, liberation of territories. “Vladimir Putin is in a hurry to organize the referendums to demonstrate a tangible result, a seizure of territories, to Russian public opinion who questioned the success of the Ukrainian offensive”, confirms Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean.

A scenario in Crimea “for worse”

As in Crimea in 2014, the “yes” will be the majority in the counting and it will be a “phony declaration of independence because organized under the Russian occupation”, estimates Cédric Mas. The historian thus recalls that the Crimean polling stations were manned by parachute troops. But, despite the results that will be announced, the annexation of these regions will not be recognized by the international community. Vladimir Putin will therefore not have his hands completely free. “We cannot act in the same way when the territory is recognized or not, even for a dictator without faith or law, explains Cédric Mas. The Russian head of state cannot hope to win by doing anything, but he can project victory by mimicking someone who is ready to do anything. »

Moreover, in 2014 in Crimea, “there was territorial coherence, a pro-Russian population and that was done without a gunshot”. However, in the oblasts of Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson or Zaporozhye, part of the population has fled these territories that Russia does not even fully control. “So it’s worse than the Crimea,” says Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean.

The Russian president is therefore seeking to make the progress of the conflict irreversible by annexing these four territories and thus, “everything becomes more dangerous, the stakes have risen, warns the specialist again. The risks are even greater than a few days ago, including for the West. »

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