The Russians find themselves out of options in their collapsing effort to overrun Ukraine. Not only did they fail to keep territory they seized in the invasion over the late winter and spring, Russia has begun to lose ground it held before the war. They’re running out of resources, and more importantly, running out of troops as Ukraine’s counteroffensive threatens to collapse their lines.
What better time than now to hold a plebiscite, eh? Unfortunately, Russia may see that as their only recruitment option in Luhansk and Donetsk:
Pro-Russian officials in the two self-declared separatist “republics” in eastern Ukraine pleaded Monday for urgent votes calling on Moscow to immediately annex the territories, a sign of apparent panic that the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine is failing.
The appeals from authorities in the Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics came as Ukrainian forces continued to extend their gains of recent days, having already pushed Russian troops out of most of the northeast Kharkiv region.
Access to the front line by journalists is restricted. But there were reports that Ukrainian troops had pushed into the city of Lysychansk in the Luhansk region, and also of fighting around the city of Slovyansk in the Donetsk region — indications that Russia was at imminent risk of losing territory it had previously controlled in the eastern Donbas region.
In a statement published on the website of the Luhansk People’s Republic’s “public chamber,” the deputy head of the chamber, Lina Vokalova, called for a public referendum to approve annexation and said the vote would “fulfill our dream of returning home — to the Russian Federation.”
Er … keep dreaming. Vladimir Putin has no concerns over even the veneer of legitimacy for such a plebiscite, but that’s not the problem. The problem is even conducting a referendum for the bare necessity of such an annexation while Ukraine keeps liberating the territories Russia wants to annex. The time to do this was about four weeks ago, before Ukraine’s counteroffensive collapsed the Russian lines and sent their forces on the run. How do you hold an election over several days, as is suggested in this proposal, while Ukrainian troops keep marching across the precincts?
Here’s an even better question. Russia might have gotten the results they wanted from a plebiscite a couple of months ago through sheer intimidation, as well as killing their opponents to annexation in the Donbas. Who in their right mind would vote for Russia now, though? Six months ago, it looked as though Russia would win the war and rule with an iron fist. Now it looks like the Ukrainians are about to push Russians back into Russia and/or the Sea of Azov and firmly re-establish Ukrainian sovereignty in the Donbas. Anyone who votes for Russia at this point is setting themselves up for a trial for collaborating.
Anyone in the Donbas with a lick of sense will stay far away from any polling stations for a plebiscite run by Moscow. They’d be signing their own death warrants either way they voted.
A referendum will have no deterrent value anyway, Kyiv emphasized today:
ISW analysts call this demand “incoherent,” and borderline humiliation:
Russian propagandist and RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan spoke glowingly of the call, referring to it as the “Crimean scenario.” She wrote that by recognizing occupied Ukrainian land as Russian territory, Russia could more easily threaten NATO with retaliatory strikes for Ukrainian counterattacks, “untying Russia’s hands in all respects.”
This approach is incoherent. Russian forces do not control all of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Annexing the claimed territories of the DNR and LNR would, therefore, have Russia annex oblasts that would be by Kremlin definition partially “occupied” by legitimate Ukrainian authorities and advancing Ukrainian forces. Ukrainian strikes into Russian-annexed Crimea clearly demonstrate that Ukrainian attacks on Russia’s illegally annexed territory do not automatically trigger Russian retaliation against NATO, as Simonyan would have her readers believe. Partial annexation at this stage would also place the Kremlin in the strange position of demanding that Ukrainian forces unoccupy “Russian” territory, and the humiliating position of being unable to enforce that demand. It remains very unclear that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be willing to place himself in such a bind for the dubious benefit of making it easier to threaten NATO or Ukraine with escalation he remains highly unlikely to conduct at this stage.
Russian leadership may be running out of ways to try to stop Ukrainian forces as they advance across the Oskil River and closer to Luhansk Oblast. The Kremlin may believe that partial annexation could drive recruitment of additional forces, both from within Russia and from within newly annexed Ukrainian territory. Russian forces are desperately attempting to mobilize additional forces from all potential sources to backfill their heavily degraded and demoralized units but have proven unable to generate significant combat power, as ISW has repeatedly written.
This latest annexation discussion also omits other parts of Russian-occupied southern Ukraine in which the Kremlin was previously planning sham annexation referenda. A willingness to abandon the promise to bring all the occupied areas into Russia at the same time would be a significant retreat for Putin to make in the eyes of the hardline pro-war groups he appears to be courting. It remains to be seen if he is willing to compromise himself internally in such a fashion.
It remains to be seen whether Putin will even have the opportunity. The Ukrainian counteroffensive is still picking up momentum, and Russian forces show little sign of cohering long enough to form a firm line against it. The Ukrainians have apparently made significant materiel additions along the way, thanks to the manner in which the Russians have fled. Business Insider notes this morning that this is especially true in armor — very bad news for the Russians still left across Ukrainian lines:
Among the items left were functioning T-72 tanks, which are now being used by Ukrainian troops to solidify their offensive, the think tank, Institute for the Study of War, said in a press release, citing a Russian source.
“The initial panic of the counteroffensive led Russian troops to abandon higher-quality equipment in working order, rather than the more damaged equipment left behind by Russian forces retreating from Kyiv in April, further indicating the severity of the Russian rout,” the institute said.
If the Ukrainians are gaining armor, then recruitment of untrained infantry in Luhansk is almost pointless. The Ukrainian infantry has proven superior in battle, has months of experience, and its leadership has developed combined-arms expertise that these repurposed tanks will only amplify. A plebiscite under these conditions is a fantasy … but that may be all Russians in Ukraine have left.