The Kremlin prepares for the escalation in Ukraine with referendums in the occupied territories and mobilizations to go to the front | International

The first political aftershocks of the earthquake caused by the advance of the Ukrainian troops have already reached the Russian Parliament, and the country is preparing for an escalation. The State Duma has speedily approved a series of amendments that for the first time contemplate scenarios such as the general mobilization of the population and a state of war. These legal changes, aimed at forcing its soldiers —and, if necessary, other sectors of the population— to go to the front, come in full clamor from part of the Kremlin circles for it to take more severe measures in the face of the counteroffensive from Kyiv. At the same time, the territories it still controls in Ukraine are preparing to hold referendums in the coming days in the hope of intimidating kyiv about the hypothetical consequences of taking what Moscow considers Russian soil in Ukraine. Among them, the nuclear threat.

While all these events were chained in a flight forward, Vladimir Putin held a meeting with representatives of the Russian military industry to discuss the supply of arms and ammunition to his troops in Ukraine. “We need to increase the production capacity of various companies and, when necessary, modernize them,” the president said during the meeting. Putin plans to deliver a message to the nation in the next few hours.

The last week has been tough in the Kremlin. The withdrawal of its troops with hardly any resistance in Kharkov, the resumption of conflicts where it has lost influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and the rudeness of its Asian partners at the Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization —mainly India and China— have damaged Putin’s image in recent days. The Indian prime minister told him before the cameras that “it is not a time of war” and the Russian president himself agreed to explain himself in the face of “the concerns” of the Chinese leader.

Faced with this scenario, the Kremlin has given a change of direction. The military administrations imposed by Russia in the occupied territories have announced that they will hold plebiscites for their annexation to Russia in the coming days. The self-styled “republics” of Lugansk and Donetsk have announced that their referendums will take place from September 23-27. The military authorities of Zaporizhia and Kherson have also announced consultations on the same dates —in the areas they control— and without any international supervision.

These votes are just a formality, since it is impossible to guarantee a referendum in the middle of a war and with a large part of the population exiled or mobilized in the front. However, they keep a military objective behind: if kyiv advances in territory considered Russian by Moscow, as is already the case with Crimea, it could try to escalate the conflict.

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“Everything that is happening today is a totally unequivocal ultimatum from Russia to Ukraine and the West. Either Ukraine withdraws or [amenazará con] a nuclear war,” states political scientist Tatiana Stanovaya on her Telegram channel. “Putin wants to force kyiv to surrender without a fight”, he adds before explaining that the course of events points to accession first, then an intensification of fighting, and finally “the mobilization and the threat of using nuclear weapons if Ukraine refuses to withdraw. “Putin has relied on escalation, and now all this is being implemented in a practical way,” warns Stanovaya, who believes that now it is the turn of military experts.

For the political scientist Ekaterina Shulman, the annexation of the territory that Moscow still controls could be an attempt by Putin to reach an agreement with his Asian partners to end the war as soon as possible. The expert warns that for this peace “only one condition is necessary: ​​that no one from the other side interferes.” That is to say, that Ukraine renounces to recover the territory and the population that Russia snatched from it. In her opinion, if kyiv continues its fight, “nothing has changed on the ground” and each side will maintain “the same weapons and capabilities.”

More steps towards mobilization

Vladimir Putin has so far refused to decree the unpopular general mobilization to go to the front. His formula for his offensive on Ukraine, the so-called special military operation, has legal loopholes that have allowed many Russian soldiers to refuse to go to combat. These otkazniki (something like “objectors” in Russian) allege reasons such as that since it is not a war they are not obliged by contract to go to the front or that they do not have authorization to cross the border.

Now, the Russian Parliament closes some of these loopholes in case a mobilization or a martial state is decreed. The State Duma approved the amendments unanimously and at full speed on Tuesday: in one morning the second and third mandatory readings of the bill were settled.

This reform provides for new prison sentences for soldiers who surrender, up to 10 years in prison, or who abandon their positions. According to the human rights lawyer Pavel Chikov, not appearing for two days at the post, for example, will imply up to five years in prison and not one as contemplated by current law.

Likewise, the punishment of those who fail to comply with orders from their superiors “during a period of martial law, in times of war or in conditions of armed conflict or combat operations” is reinforced, as well as the refusal to participate in military activities. In these cases, the military may be sentenced to between two and three years in prison.

Preparation for a war economy is also provided for in the new amendments. A prison sentence of four to eight years is introduced for businessmen who twice refuse to sign a contract with the armed forces, and if this is breached, the stay in prison can reach 10 years.

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