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Russia Using Annexations, Mobilization To 'Plug The Holes' And 'Hold The Line,' Says Analyst

A Russian policeman stands guard at a polling station beneath a Russian flag in Ukraine's Luhansk region on September 27.
A Russian policeman stands guard at a polling station beneath a Russian flag in Ukraine's Luhansk region on September 27.

After holding stage-managed, wartime votes on “joining the Russian Federation” in the Russia-occupied parts of four Ukrainian regions, the Kremlin appears to be moving rapidly toward claiming sovereignty over more Ukrainian territory. Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to address the nation on September 30 to formalize the move. The process appears to be playing out nearly identically to the one that culminated in the Russian seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014.

In addition, Putin recently announced a “partial military mobilization” with the goal of calling up at least 300,000 reservists to fight in Ukraine.

Both developments come on the heels of a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive that has left Russian forces reeling in the Kharkiv region and dealt Moscow a significant public-relations blow.

Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, asked Russian political scientist and liberal commentator Ivan Preobrazhensky for his take on the Kremlin’s change of tactics.

Current Time: With President Vladimir Putin scheduled to address the nation on September 30, the Kremlin seems intent on proceeding with the annexation of four Ukrainian regions. How realistic are these plans considering the current military and international situations?

Ivan Preobrazhensky: We are talking about a televised spectacle that the Kremlin has set in motion. It is clear that no normal referendums are being held anywhere. It is clear that no one outside of Russia is taking any of this seriously, while inside Russia, everyone understands this is a performance. And it isn’t a problem to perform a spectacle: they have all the necessary resources and opportunities. It isn’t a problem to simulate voting, publish figures that were predetermined already during the summer, proclaim that the residents of the occupied territories want to voluntarily join the Russian Federation, hold an event in [the Kremlin’s] St. George’s Hall, applaud Vladimir Putin’s speech, and give him a present for his October 7 birthday.

Current Time: And what comes after the spectacle?

Preobrazhensky: After the spectacle will come two practical developments that, in the short-term perspective, are the reasons for doing this.

We are witnessing a television spectacle with which they are trying to conceal the real picture.

First, the Kremlin will have -- or so it thinks -- an additional reason to wave around its nuclear weapons and shout: “These are our people! Our territories! Don’t mess around or we will use the bomb!”

Bearing in mind that [Ukrainian President] Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the Americans have said that they take seriously the threats Putin has already made that Russia will use nuclear weapons to defend its interests, they will now have to take them even more seriously.

The second point is connected to the reservists. [Defense Minister] Sergei Shoigu has said that those called up will not fight in the zone of the so-called special military operation. But they understand that it is one thing to fight on Ukrainian territory and another to fight on the purported territory of Russia after [those regions] are proclaimed to be Russian.

We know that this won’t end the war, and nothing will stop. However, reservist-soldiers can be sent there because they will be “defending the territory of the Russian Federation.” Under existing laws, they definitely can participate in “defensive” military actions on Russian territory. This whole performance is being done to give the military action the veneer of a “defensive” nature.

The Kremlin does not have the resources to take the offensive. It needs to immediately mobilize a lot of cannon fodder and use them to plug the holes in the line simply to hold that line. Putin hasn’t said anything about an offensive. No one in Moscow is speaking seriously about continuing to attack. Obviously, all this is being done to hold on to [occupied] territory.

Current Time: Wouldn’t it be strange for them to announce an offensive even if they were planning one?

Preobrazhensky: When one side holds the strategic initiative, as Russia did at the beginning of this active phase of the war after February 24, if they have serious ambitions, then it is psychologically very important to talk about offensives, about how they are sure of total victory and the liquidation of the Kyiv “regime,” as they call it, and so on. Some people are still talking about this, but only village idiots – a role now being played, for example, by Dmitry Medvedev, former president and former human.

Ivan Preobrazhensky (file photo)
Ivan Preobrazhensky (file photo)

But no one is speaking like this seriously. Shoigu hasn’t spoken like this, and neither has Putin. This is a very clear signal.

In Putin’s [mobilization] speech, he talked about the fact that military activity has moved onto Russian territory –in the Belgorod and Kursk regions -- and that [the illegally Russian-annexed Ukrainian region of] Crimea is threatened. “We won’t allow that,” he said.

This is painting a very clear picture.... “We won’t give back Crimea under any circumstances. Don’t dare fire upon our territory. That is why we are announcing mobilization and will intensify our military activity.” This is roughly the real situation, while we are witnessing a television spectacle with which they are trying to conceal the real picture.

But a lot of people have already figured out that things really look quite different.

Current Time: The images [of anti-mobilization protests] from Daghestan made a big impression over the last couple of days. Do you think the mobilization protests in Russia will grow or, as we have seen in Russia in recent years, they will fade after the initial, emotional response?

Preobrazhensky: The country has awakened in a sense and the protests will grow in areas where they meet the tacit support of the authorities -- mostly, in the non-Russian regions. In those areas, there will be negotiations with the federal center and they will reach some sort of informal agreement on reducing the mobilization burden of those regions. I’m speaking about Sakha [a northern Siberian region also known as Yakutia] or Chechnya, where [strongman leader] Ramzan Kadyrov has refused to subordinate himself to federal security officials and is making decisions on his own.

Protesters In Russia's Daghestan Rally Against Military Call-Up
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Vladimir Putin himself already planted a bomb under a unified Russian Federation during the COVID-19 pandemic by shifting all the responsibility to the regional authorities. Now the regional authorities are starting to use these powers in a situation of political instability -- which is really unfolding now in Russia, despite the appearance of such police brutality.

Translated by RFE/RL Feature Writer Robert Coalson

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