No one expected Russia to keep quiet as Ukrainian troops, in a multi-front military action and armed with powerful new equipment provided by the United States, retook strategic cities that had been occupied for months by the Russians. And it didn’t. In a speech recorded and broadcast on television, President Vladimir Putin announced the immediate call-up of 300,000 reservists “to protect the motherland”. In a more aggressive tone than usual, he mentioned an imaginary plan by the West to “disintegrate” Russia and warned: “Those who blackmail us with nuclear weapons must bear in mind that the weathervane may turn and point at them.” Looking at the camera with his quirky style, he snapped, “That’s not a bluff.”
Hours later, addressing the United Nations General Assembly, US President Joe Biden responded in kind, devoting almost all of his podium time to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Biden called Russia’s “clear nuclear threats” against Europe “irresponsible” and condemned the “brutal and unreasonable war”. “The purpose of this war is purely and simply to annihilate Ukraine’s right to exist as a country. Whoever you are, live where you live, believe what you believe, that should chill the blood in your veins,” he declared. With winter coming and the cost of energy, in the absence of Russian gas, already forcing companies to lay off employees in Europe, Putin’s escalation of war in some ways favors Biden’s effort to keep alive the current of support for the Ukrainian resistance inside and outside the country. outside the country — so far, Americans have not squealed at the $13.5 billion worth of arms and ammunition sent by Washington to Kiev.
The main task of Russian reservists, according to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, will be to reinforce the line along Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders. The call-up more than doubles the contingent of 200,000 soldiers already in action — whose contracts, by the way, were extended until the end of the “temporary mobilization”. In addition, Parliament passed a law that toughens punishments for crimes such as desertion and insubordination. According to Western intelligence services, Russian troops in Ukraine are inexperienced and unmotivated and feel the blow of 20,000 deaths so far.
In parallel with the mandatory submission of reservists, an unpopular measure that was ruled out by military authorities until a week ago, Putin confirmed the holding of referendums in four fully or nearly occupied regions — Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhya, where the largest power plant is located. of Europe — proposing its annexation to Russia. The votes between September 23 and 27, rigged to the last ballot box, are crucial for Putin to justify the call-up of young people without appearing to be losing the war. In his convoluted speech in defense of Mother Russia — “our armed forces, deployed in a 1,000 kilometer front line, face not only neo-Nazi battalions (translation: the troops commanded by Kiev), like the entire Western military machine” — Putin tried to explain the need for reinforcements. If the occupied areas were annexed, by vote or by force, the argument would become stronger. “Incorporating the territories would transform Ukrainian military operations to liberate the occupied areas into an act of aggression against Russia,” says Tatyana Malyarenko, professor of international relations at the National University of Odessa.
Anticipating the dissatisfaction that the summons causes, the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office has threatened anyone who participates in protests or publishes calls to the streets on social media with up to fifteen years in prison. Even so, there were demonstrations, the first since the outbreak of the war, with more than 1,300 detainees. Reservists packed airports and, on the same day as Putin’s speech, flights from Moscow were packed, despite soaring ticket prices.
In the West, both the increase in military numbers and the referendums were interpreted as Putin’s reactions to military setbacks and the loss of support at the top of government. “The war is clearly not going according to Russian plans,” boasted Mykhailo Podoliak, a top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In general, experts believe that the conflict is far from over. And a cornered Putin can be even more dangerous.
Published in VEJA of September 28, 2022, issue nº 2808
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