- Almost seven months after the conflict in Ukraine began, Russia’s President announced a partial military mobilisation and increased the nuclear threat. Separately, four Russia-backed breakaway regions in Ukraine are holding referendums on joining Russia (Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, and Kherson and Zaporizhzhya in the south).
- These decisions followed Russia’s first major battlefield defeat in Ukraine earlier this month, when Russian troops were forced to retreat from territories they had captured in the Kharkiv Oblast.
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Background to the Ukraine-Russia conflict
- Following the Soviet Union’s demise (in 1991), Ukraine, a constituent state of the Soviet Union, chose independence in a democratic referendum in 1991.
- Since then, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has expanded eastward, absorbing most of the Eastern European nations that had previously been in the Communist orbit.
- NATO declared its intention to offer Ukraine membership in the future in 2008.
- Russia sees NATO expansion as an existential threat, and Ukraine joining the Western military alliance as a “hostile act,” because Russia still considers Ukraine to be a cultural, linguistic, and political part of Russia.
- While some of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population in the east agrees, a more nationalist – Ukrainian-speaking west has always advocated for deeper integration with Europe.
- In 2014, Euromaidan demonstrators in Kyiv (Ukraine’s capital) forced the resignation of a pro-Russian president who refused to sign an EU association agreement.
- Russia retaliated by annexing the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, and the two sides have yet to reach a peace agreement, despite a ceasefire agreement in 2015.
- Since then, Moscow has been accused of using hybrid warfare against Ukraine, including cyberattacks, economic pressure, and propaganda, culminating in a full-fledged Russian invasion effort last week.
Why did Russia announce its military mobilisation recently?
- When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his “special military operation” (on February 24), it appeared that his goal was to gain quick territory in Ukraine through a limited war.
- The Russian military made significant territorial gains in the east and south of Ukraine; the four referendum-holding regions account for roughly 15% of the country’s landmass.
- However, they paid a high price for those gains, which fell short of the initial goals.
- Ukrainian troops, backed by NATO, halted Russian troops on the outskirts of Kyiv, drove them out of Kharkiv, and held off the Russians in the east for a long time.
- Despite the slow pace, Russia insisted that its operation was going as planned until its troops were driven out of Kharkiv Oblast.
- The military setback forced Russia to abandon the delusion that everything was going as planned.
- In a recent speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged the limits of his operation and the difficulties that his troops face in Ukraine.
- Russia has reached a point where its military gains cannot be sustained without additional troop mobilisation.
What exactly is partial military mobilisation?
- According to Russia’s Defense Minister, the country’s vast reserves can mobilise approximately 25 million people; however, the Defense Ministry intends to mobilise only 1% of that potential (some 3,00,000 troops).
- This is because a general mobilisation requiring nationwide conscription (compulsory military service) may be unpopular.
- As a result, Russian President Vladimir Putin chose a partial mobilisation, which sparked some protests.
The influence of referendums on the situation:
- Separatists have been planning referendums in Ukraine’s four Russia-backed breakaway regions for some time (Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, and Kherson and Zaporizhzhya in the south), but Russia’s setbacks in Kharkiv appear to have accelerated their plans.
- While the results will come as no surprise, it remains to be seen whether Moscow will recognise the referendums and annexe these territories.
- If Moscow does it, Ukraine’s borders will be redrawn, requiring Russia to commit more resources to defend those territories.
- Because the referendums and additional mobilisation are part of the same strategy, they were almost simultaneously announced.
In the future:
- The Russian President’s recent address sends mixed signals.
- He referred to the March talks between Russia and Ukraine, in which both sides agreed to further discuss peace proposals, which were sabotaged (destroyed) by the US and the UK, according to Mr. Putin.
- This is a reference to the Istanbul talks, where Ukraine made a proposal –
- To declare neutrality (forego NATO membership) in exchange for multilateral security guarantees.
- To discuss the situation in Donbas (with Mr. Putin) and reach an agreement on a 15-year consultation period for Crimea (during which the status quo would be respected).
- Following the talks, Russia declared its withdrawal from the region surrounding Kyiv and Kharkiv.
- As a result, the Russian President’s positive mention of the peace process implies that the prospect of a negotiated settlement is not yet dead.
- If the mobilisation fails, the Russian President’s domestic standing will suffer, forcing him to take more drastic measures.
- This means that depending on which path the stakeholders take, the current phase of the war offers both a chance for peace and a dangerous escalation.