A stunning, if tactical, Ukrainian success around Kharkiv and an apparent Russian defeat have sent shock waves throughout the post-Soviet zone.
Kazakhstan has asserted itself against its Russian minority. The Azeris and Armenians are at each others’ throats again; and so are the Kyrgyz and Tajik.
This is not only a function of so-called “ancient hatreds” but, rather, of a general perception of Moscow’s weakness.
First and foremost, the regional defeat in eastern Ukraine has jolted the Kremlin itself. Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot tolerate defeat. Failure undercuts his popularity and invites a backlash, including, perhaps, even a coup to replace him.
Putin has consequently executed a few crucial moves for self-protection and self-aggrandizement. They concern propaganda, nukes, incorporation, and draft.
First, the Russian leader has reiterated that the war in Ukraine is really a defense of Russia from an American led coalition of Western invaders. No longer just a “special military operation” against “Ukrainian Nazis,” it is now existential struggle of Mother Russia representing Christendom against the “globohomo” West. It is crucial that Moscow be always perceived as a victim.
Second, thus, in light of an existential menace, Putin has coldly restated his commitment to use nuclear weapons if needs be. This is not mere swaggering and Obama-like “lines in the sand.” The Kremlin is serious. Russian politicians and pundits routinely and openly discuss not just using tactical nukes in Ukraine but even nuking Poland and Lithuania.
Third, the Russian president has finally allowed referenda to incorporate the occupied eastern Ukrainian territories into the Mother Russia. Hitherto the Russian leader was happy to maintain the fiction of “independent” “people’s republics” in the Donbass to persist. They served as an alibi, first, for a frozen conflict (2014-2022) and, now, for the current war.
Initially, both the separatists and their Muscovite protectors even toyed with an idea to set up, or “resurrect,” the “federal” state of Malorossiya (Little Russia) comprising the Donbass, an 18th century tsarist administrative unit. However, the present reversals at the front have compelled Putin to secure his conquest.
It is incorporation or nothing now. From now on, any Ukrainian offensive to recover Kiyv’s eastern lands will be painted as an aggression on “holy Russian soil” itself.
Fourth, in addition to 134,500 of the May draft, Putin has now called up 300,000 reservists to replenish his armed forces in the war in Ukraine. That is 100,000 troops more than Moscow amassed on its border with Ukrainie before launching its assault in February.
Until now the Russian leader was rather ginger about using regular draftees. In fact, he even released some of them from front duty to alleviate hardship and prevent dissent from spreading in light of heavy casualties.
So far the bulk of troops have been well-paid professional enlistees, pardoned prisoners, and mercenaries, such as the infamous Wagner group. All of them can count on generous remuneration and bonuses.
Even before the current presidential decree, desperate Moscow called up its Cossack reservists, though many volunteered: some for Russia, and fewer for Ukraine.
It seems that national minorities may be overrepresented in the Russian armed forces in the war. They also tend to be distrusted and likely deployed as cannon fodder. Allegedly, Moscow asks for them last in prisoner of war swaps.
The evidence is murky for all that. Take Chechens, for example. They fight on both sides, as during the wars against the Russian aggression in the 1990s. Some Chechens oppose the draft at home and the Chechen head of state has threatened that he would make the lives of the draft dodgers a living “hell.”
Refusing to fight in Ukraine and sick of discrimination, some of Russia’s Buddhist leaders of the Kalmyks, Tuvins, and Buryats have fled to Mongolia. Meanwhile, an émigré outfit helped 150 Buryat soldiers to avoid combat in Ukraine, and even defect.
There has been resistance to the war and draft, not only among the minorities, but also ethnic Russians. Recruitment stations have been burned down.
Though dissent was harshly curtailed in March because of the Kremlin’s draconian laws, occasional demonstrations have broken out. Many have fled Russia to avoid serving.
Putin refuses to stand down, despite criticism not just from the West, but also usually reliable allies in China, Iran, and India. They do not seem to like the nuclear rhetoric. And they perhaps feel the war has gone too far.
The plot thickens.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of statecraft in Washington D.C.; expert on East-Central Europe's Three Seas region; author, among others, of "Intermarium: The Land Between The Baltic and Black Seas." Read Marek Jan Chodakiewicz's Reports — More Here.
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