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‘The war party has won’ Kremlin plans ‘immediate’ annexation of Ukrainian territories — and mobilization at home. Here’s this new decision’s background.
Story by Andrey Pertsev. Translation by Anna Razumnaya.
One after another, and apparently in great haste, the Russian-backed administrations of the self-proclaimed Donbas and Luhansk republics, as well as the occupied Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions of Ukraine, announced today that “referendums on joining Russia” would soon be held on their territories. The “vote” in all four regions will take place this week, on September 23–27.
As Meduza reported previously, soon after the Ukrainian troops’ successful counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region, Moscow decided to “put the referendums on pause” indefinitely. According to two sources close to the Russian Presidential Administration, as late as the close of last week, Kremlin’s domestic political bloc had no intentions of speeding the “referendums.” Following the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive, Russian political strategists, who had until then been working in Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia regions, all left for Russia. Preparations for the vote in the Kherson region were folded. In LNR and DNR, campaigning had hardly begun.
Over just a few days, this state of affairs was utterly changed. Regarding the “referendums” slated to take place this week, Meduza’s sources said that “the mood is to get it all done very quickly.” Sources close to the Kremlin highlight that, this time, the Russian side is not interested in creating as much as “an illusion of legitimacy.” What matters is “to have some sort of a vote and to report the results.” Electronic voting is mentioned among the various plans [though not for all regions—Ed.], as a tool that has enabled the Russian political elites to manipulate past elections in Russia itself.
Meduza’s sources attribute this change to the lobbying efforts of the so-called “war party” — a group of powerful Russian bureaucrats and law-enforcement officials who favor a further escalation of the war with Ukraine and mobilization in Russia. (By comparison, Kyiv carried out a full mobilization right at the start of the war; as a result, it currently has a numerical advantage at the front.) A source close to the Kremlin said simply that Putin was “influenced” — and “suddenly, everything sped ahead.”
Meduza’s sources explain that this new urgency has two reasons behind it. The first comes from certain “civilian” members of the ruling elite (including those in the Presidential Administration). Those people are concerned about the political mood in the occupied territories, following the Ukrainian troops’ advances:
In Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, there was serious concern among the pro-Russian residents — namely, that Ukraine would return, and then punish them. In DNR and LNR, there was discontent with referendum delays. After the Ukrainian counteroffensive, these fears were multiplied, even in DNR and LNR, where they had not been common until then.
Proponents of this view include Andrey Turchak (Secretary of United Russia’s General Council) and former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (the Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council). (Neither Turchak himself nor Medvedev’s staff had answered Meduza’s queries as of the time of publication.)
In their efforts to influence Putin, our sources suggest, Medvedev, Turchak, and other people close to them have become allied with certain figures in the law enforcement structure (“siloviki,” such as Victor Zolotov, the current head of the National Guard, or Rosgvardiya). People like Zolotov and his colleagues in law enforcement tend to think that Russia’s military success vis-a-vis Ukraine depends on mobilizing civilians. This amounts to the second reason behind Kremlin’s about-face with respect to the referendums. (Zolotov’s staff did not respond to Meduza’s questions.)
President Putin himself — according to Meduza’s sources — wanted to conduct the referendums as soon as possible. He has no intentions of cutting Russia’s military activity. One source explains that, at the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s summit in Samarkand, the heads of several states — including the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the president of Kazakhstan — all made it clear to Putin that “the war needs to end.” Putin, apparently, reacted to this “very aggressively.” (Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov did not reply to Meduza’s queries as of the time of publication.)
Three sources close to the Kremlin highlight that, as envisioned by the Russian authorities, the “referendums” are meant to halt the Ukrainian troops in their advancement, since they “will not risk entering Russian territory.” (Still, Russian border towns now regularly come under fire.) Kyiv officials, meanwhile, have already made clear that the upcoming “referendums” are nothing but a “fiction,” and will make no difference to the Ukrainian side.
If the Ukrainian counteroffensive continues, the Russian authorities intend to conduct a partial mobilization in Russia, introducing martial law into civilian life. According to Meduza’s sources, such a “new situation” would bring along further staff changes in the Presidential Administration and the Defense Ministry.
The State Duma passed new legislation, necessary to support the plans of mobilization, on September 20, the very same day when “referendums on joining Russia” were announced. Not a single lawmaker voiced an objection to the new amendments.
Translation by Anna Razumnaya
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