Will Russia Hold Referendums in Eastern Ukraine or Step Up Its War Effort

PeopleDiplomats ♦ Published: May 5, 2022; 21:01 ♦ (Vindobona)

The war in Ukraine is raging and the Ukrainians are defending themselves against the more powerful Russian forces, which, however, have faltered. The question that arises is what strategy Russia will now adopt. There are signs of referendums in eastern Ukraine and of stepping up the Russian war effort.

A pro-Russian rally in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. Many ethnic Russians live in eastern Ukraine. / Picture: © Wikimedia Commons /Andrew Butko, CC BY 3.0

The Russian war of aggression in Ukraine is raging and the Ukrainians are defending themselves against the more powerful Russian forces. However, the Russians have stalled and it looks like many of the actual invasion plans have been scrapped. Russia's new strategy is not yet clear.

Warnings of a significant expansion of the Russian war to Ukraine are increasing. Speculation has been circulating for days that the Kremlin could impose martial law and order a general mobilization on May 9 for the traditional World War II commemoration parade.

According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, intelligence agencies and diplomats warn that Moscow could incorporate eastern Ukraine into its territory and thus legitimize a general mobilization and attacks against the West.

Russia questioning Ukrainian identity

The propaganda of the Russians questions the sovereign state of Ukraine and Ukrainian identity. Russia is just doing everything to make the war right so that Ukraine is ruled by Nazis and wants the fall of Russian civilization.

The Russian leadership also keeps talking about the "Russian world", a state in which all Russians live united. The concept is extremely irredentist and calls for a Greater Russia in which Russians who do not live in Russia are to be incorporated into the Russian state.

The U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, Michael Carpenter, also addressed this issue in a recent statement.

"The rhetoric we repeatedly hear from Russia’s representatives denies that Ukraine is historically or culturally distinct from Russia or that it has the right to exist as a sovereign, independent nation-state. It tries to erase the very idea of a Ukrainian identity, and it describes the people of Ukraine in the vilest terms", said Michael Carpenter, "the Kremlin contends that Ukraine is an artificial construct, that Ukrainians and Russians are supposedly “one people,” and that Ukraine’s sovereignty is possible only as part of the Russian Federation. Russian President Putin wrote these very points in an essay just a few months ago."

The Kremlin's megalomania is reflected in its propaganda. Russia is trying everything to justify its invasion of Ukraine. Russia is not afraid to turn its own history upside down, forgetting that Ukrainians also fought in the Red Army against the Germans and defended their homeland from Hitler's invasion.

This is how Zelensky, who himself has a Jewish background, was labeled a Nazi by Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.

War maneuvers in Belarus

Belarus had tested its rapid reaction force in an unannounced maneuver Tuesday night. The exercise was intended to test combat readiness, combat tasks and aspects of marching to operational areas, the Belarusian Defense Ministry said on Telegram.

The maneuver will train the defense against ground and air attacks. The number of participating formations will be gradually increased. The aim is to check how quickly the intervention force can respond to sudden crises.

According to Belarus, the military exercise poses no threat, not to European society as a whole and not to neighboring countries. The relationship between Kyiv and Minsk is fractured, and Belarus is a close ally of Russia.

Ukraine fears that at some point in the war, Russia could draw on Belarusian troops and territory. A Belarusian entry into the war would be even more fatal and would mean a harsh two-front war for Ukraine.

A Belarusian attack would be even more fatal if Russia advances greatly. If you also consider that Ukraine is in constant danger of being completely blockaded by the Russian navy in the south of its coast anyway, and a large-scale attack by the navy and naval infantry is constantly threatening.

The U.S. and the EU have already imposed sanctions against the country. However, the country's ruler, Alexander Lukashenko, has so far always denied that he is participating in the Russian invasion with his own troops.

Russia intensified its attacks on Ukraine's military infrastructure and transport network. The Kremlin recently announced that it would also target arms shipments from the West to Ukraine. To that end, shelling also occurred in the west of the country. Six railroad substations were destroyed near the stations of Pidbirzi, Lviv, Volovets, Tymkovets, and Pyatykhatky, through which weapons and ammunition from the U.S. and European countries were transported for Ukrainian troops in the Donbas.

In addition, heavy air and artillery attacks by Russian troops along the front in the east were reported. Artillery units, for example, had shelled some 500 targets, including command and support bases, depots, and troop concentrations. More than 300 Ukrainian soldiers were killed. Russian missiles, in turn, had knocked out several Ukrainian artillery positions and air defense systems. The information could not be independently verified, according to the ORF.

Referendums in the east of Ukraine

Many experts suspect that Russia could use manipulated referendums to try to break several regions in the east of the country out of Ukraine - similar to what was done in Crimea in 2014.

The U.S. warns that Moscow could use votes to mimic legitimacy to annex the territories: Russia probably wants to hold rigged referendums in mid-May on annexing the two separatist regions in the Donbas, U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Michael Carpenter said on Monday.

A similar approach is planned in the now Russian-controlled southern Ukrainian region of Kherson, where Moscow already wants to enforce the use of the ruble as currency, Carpenter said. U.S. ambassador Carpenter stressed that such fake referendums "are not considered legitimate" - as was the case with the referendum on the annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in 2014, where the majority Russian-born population had voted in favor of joining Russia. This, too, is not recognized internationally.

Russia could also bring such referendums into play as a quasi "peaceful solution" to the conflict. If the results of the referendums were in Moscow's favor, one of the war aims - a land connection to Crimea - would have been achieved.

Putin also tried to equate the independence process of Kosovo and the processes behind it, with possible independence of the Donbas.

Russia would like to hold such referendums to incorporate into Russia the areas in the east where many ethnic Russians live.

Apart from possible attempts to falsify the results, such referendums would hardly be representative, since a large number of people have fled the affected areas and would not have a vote.

Russia's Victory Day - May 9

May 9 is a significant day for Russia. In Russia, in contrast, the victory over fascism and Liberation Day is not celebrated on May 8, but one day later.

May 9, the day of victory, was already important in the times of the Soviet Union and a state holiday with huge military parades.

Many are expecting a speech by Putin on the situation of the war and what the next steps are. Vladimir Putin calls the war in Ukraine only a special military operation to "denazify" Ukraine.

A war against alleged Nazis and the celebration of the victory against the real Nazis of World War 2, means a huge propaganda spectacle in Russia. To improve his popularity, Putin will probably announce the next steps of the Russian war effort and political goals in Ukraine on May 9.

Some also assume that Russia will integrate the areas in the event of a positive referendum in Russia's interest. However, if the fighting in these areas continues, Russia could conduct a general mobilization. In that case, the West might need to reconsider its support for Ukraine to avoid open conflict with Russia.

As reported by Vindobona.org, Russia also blocked the OSCE's Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine to more easily hide its activities from the international community. Whatever the Russian strategy, there will be no SMM that can quickly announce that to the world.

Russia is doing everything it can to break up the state of Ukraine in its current form, but Russia is also trying to pull its head out of the noose. It seems that the initial Russian war plans were unsuccessful and the country's economy is suffering from the sanctions. Vladimir Putin may be trying to use his last chance to turn the tide.

US Mission to the OSCE