Ukrainian counter-offensives have pushed back Russian forces and backed Moscow into a corner. Feeling threatened, Vladimir Putin is drastically raising the stakes of an already devastating war.
An old woman stands outside her house as she sees in the distance a large group of men approaching. After several months of Russian occupation, she is concerned, what brings the Russians near her home? “Slava Ukraini!” a soldier shouts. The old woman freezes in disbelief. The soldier disembarks from a vehicle and approaches the woman. The woman quickly breaks her frozen state and embraces the soldier, crying. After months of devastating occupation, she is finally liberated.
The past four months of the Russian invasion of Ukraine have been a brutal and long standstill. No side was able to make any meaningful advances. Over the last month, however, all that changed. Ukrainian forces launched a sudden and unexpected attack on Russian-occupied territory in the northeast, liberating towns that took several weeks for the Russians to capture in only a matter of days. What is most impressive about this offensive is not only the speed of the Ukrainian army’s advance but also the great trick the Ukrainian government played on Russia.
For months, speculation of a Ukrainian counter-offensive centered around the retaking of Kherson in the south. This talk culminated on August 29th when Zelensky announced that Ukraine had finally begun the Kherson offensive. In the days following the announcement, Ukraine made very few advances, only liberating a few small settlements in the region, but—unannounced to the public—this was all part of the plan. With Russian troops concentrated in the south preparing for an attack, Ukraine launched a surprise counter-offensive in the east. This offensive caught the Russian army completely off guard as several Russian units were forced to surrender. In a cheap move to save face, the Russian military command announced it was withdrawing from the Kharkiv region entirely.
Russia’s defeat in the Kharkiv Oblast is nothing short of completely humiliating, and Putin knows it. The supposed second-best military in the world has been consistently defeated by a much smaller and supposedly less capable eastern European nation.
It is on this backdrop of defeat after defeat that Vladimir Putin escalated the war drastically. On September 20th, a week after Russian forces withdrew from the Kharkiv region, the State Duma of the Russian Federation introduced several worrying laws. The Duma introduced legislation that would greatly increase the penalty for voluntary surrender of Russian troops, the penalty for not reporting to military service in the event of conscription, and the penalty for refusing orders from a commanding officer. The same day, officials in the so-called Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk Peoples’ Republic announced that they would be holding referendums on whether to join the Russian Federation. Russian occupation authorities in the Kherson Oblast and Zaporizhzhia Oblast announced referendums as well.
These bombshells were followed the next day with an even bigger announcement. For the first time since the invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin gave a pre-recorded address to the nation where he announced partial mobilization. In a decree, Putin ordered the mobilization of 300,000 Russians who have previously served in the military or are currently reservists. This announcement sparked protests all over Russia and sent the nation into panic: all flights out of the country were immediately sold out.
In occupied Ukraine, another chaotic situation unfolded as the so-called referendums to join Russia took place. The entire process was filled with fraud by the occupiers and mistrust by the local populations. In some cases, referendum officials would show up outside people's homes with Russian soldiers by their side and ask them to vote. Rumors spread that described how people who had voted “no” were placed on a list or disappeared. Even if these rumors are false, that does not change the fact that there is a deep mistrust of the occupiers. Rightfully so, as these are the same people who only months ago had been bombing their cities and massacring their children. Additionally, the ballot measures asked the voters if they wished for the entirety of the region they live in to join Russia. The issue with this is that the four regions that are voting are not even fully controlled by Russia, meaning that the people outside Russian occupation did not get a say on the referendum. There was no way that these results could possibly reflect the legitimate will of the people. That, however, is the point. Russia never had any intention to make the invasion and occupation of Ukraine democratic. This invasion is a land grab by an irredentist imperial power, not an example of regional self-determination. Unsurprisingly, on September 27th, officials announced that the four regions had voted overwhelmingly in support of joining Russia, with margins no lower than 87%.
On September 30th, Vladimir Putin signed a decree officially integrating the four regions. With the decree, he put an end to the six-year existence of the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics which he had recognized as independent in February of 2022. The annexation of these regions is much more than Putin drawing a line on a map—this fundamentally changes the war and our world for the worse.
Vladimir Putin sold his invasion to his people by declaring it a “special military operation.” This ensured that the Russian people would not have to involve themselves in the war effort. One could compare it to the US invasion of Iraq. The United States did not mobilize the population for the war; no, we used a volunteer military force to commence a military operation. But imagine if suddenly the Bush administration had announced the military would be mobilizing 300,000 people for war - it would have been a disaster and insanely unpopular.
The actions and words coming from the Kremlin over the past month indicate that Putin is no longer looking at this as a military operation but as a war against the West and its ideals. This war is one that the Russian people should be mobilized for.
From a legal standpoint, there are two main worries about the annexation of the occupied territories. First, Putin can now conscript civilians in the territories as they are now de-facto and de-jure (according to Russian law) Russian subjects. Secondly, and much more worryingly, a continued and successful Ukrainian counter-offensive into these areas would allow Russia to claim that its territory has been attacked. This tactic allows Putin to officially justify total mobilization, or worse, the use of nuclear weapons either on the battlefield or against civilian targets in Ukraine. Russian nuclear doctrine allows for the use of tactical or strategic nuclear weapons in the event that the entirety of the Russian state’s existence is at risk. As Ukrainian forces continue to take back land that Russia views as legally their own, the Russian government may argue that this qualifies as a justification for the use of tactical nuclear weapons to force Ukraine to surrender or stop attacking.
All the events described in this article are completely and unquestionably the result of the event mentioned before it. The Kharkiv counter-offensive has led Russia into a downward spiral of madness as the Russian people and the nation’s leaders finally begin to realize that this war is no longer being won. Putin’s speeches have been increasingly more aggressive as he desperately grabs for any remaining tools in his arsenal to achieve any sort of victory. He does not care that he is sending tens of thousands of people to die in a pointless war of imperial aggression.
The simple fact is that Ukraine will continue to take back land, and, as they do, Russia will continue to become more and more erratic in its responses; thus bringing the world closer and closer to a third world war. Vladimir Putin’s nuclear posturing should not be ignored.
This long and brutal war is a testament to the bravery of the human spirit, but it also shows the monstrous things we are capable of doing.
Ultimately, Ukraine will win this war. It will be a long and brutal fight to the end, but in the end, Russia will be defeated on the battlefield. When the war ends, the people of Ukraine, Russia, and the international community, will have a lot of rebuilding to do. That conversation, however, is one for another time. Right now, we can only watch and hope that Russia does not make the mistake that would cost the lives of all of humanity and civilization.
Caden Umansky is a second-year International Studies major in the School of International Service. He is a Staff Writer for the American Agora.