From ‘special military operation’ to open war

From ‘special military operation’ to open war: significance of the referendums in Donbas, Kherson and Zaporozhie

The televised speech yesterday morning by Vladimir Putin and the follow-up remarks by his Minister of Defense Shoigu announcing the partial mobilization of Russia’s army reserves to add a total of 300,000 men to the military campaign in Ukraine have been widely reported in the Western press.  Plans to hold referendums on accession to the Russian Federation in the Donbas republics this weekend and also in the Kherson and Zaporozhie oblasts in the very near future also were reported by the Western press.  However, as is very commonly the case, the interrelationship of these two developments has not been seen, or, if seen, has not been shared with the general public. Since precisely this interrelationship has been highlighted on Russian state television talk shows these past two days, I use this opportunity to bring to my readership the key facts on what turn the ongoing conflict in Ukraine will now take and an updated view of when it will end and with what results.

The very idea of referendums in the Donbas has been ridiculed by mainstream media in the United States and Europe. They are denounced as ‘sham’ and we are told that the results will not be recognized.  In fact, the Kremlin does not at all care whether the results are recognized as valid in the West.  Their logic lies elsewhere. As for the Russian public, the only critical remark about the referendums has been about the timing, with even some patriotic folks saying openly that it is too early to hold the vote given that the Donetsk People’s Republic, the Zaporozhie and Kherson oblasts have not yet been fully ‘liberated.’ Here too, the logic of these votes lies elsewhere.

It is a foregone conclusion that the Donbas republics and other territories of Ukraine now under Russian occupation will vote to join the Russian Federation. In the case of Donetsk and Lugansk, it was only under pressure from Moscow that their 2014 referendums were about declaring sovereignty and not about becoming part of Russia. Such annexation or merger was not welcomed by the Kremlin back then because Russia was not ready to face the expected massive economic, political and military attack from the West which would have followed.  Today, Moscow is more than ready: indeed it has survived very well all the economic sanctions imposed by the West from even before 24 February as well as the ever growing supply to Ukraine of military materiel and ‘advisers’ from the NATO countries.

The vote over joining Russia will likely hit 90% or more in favor.  What will immediately follow on the Russian side is also perfectly clear:  within hours of the declaration of referendum results, the Russian State Duma will pass a bill on ‘reunification’ of these territories with Russia and within a day or so, it will be approved by the upper chamber of parliament and immediately thereafter the bill will be signed into law by President Putin.

Looking past his service as a KGB intelligence operative, which is all that Western “Russia specialists” go on about endlessly in their articles and books, let us also remember Vladimir Putin’s law degree. As President, he has systematically stayed within domestic and international law. He will do so now.  Unlike his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin has not ruled by presidential decree; he has ruled by laws promulgated by a bicameral parliament constituted from several parties.  He has ruled in keeping with international law promulgated by the United Nations. UN law speaks for the sanctity of territorial integrity of Member States; but UN law also speaks of the sanctity of self-determination of peoples.

What follows from the formal merger of these territories with Russia?  That is also perfectly clear. As integral parts of Russia, any attack on them, and there certainly will be such attacks coming from the Ukrainian armed forces, is a casus belli. But even before that, the referendums have been preceded by the announcement of mobilization, which points directly to what Russia will do further if developments on the field of battle so requires. Progressive phases of mobilization will be justified to the Russian public as necessary to defend the borders of the Russian Federation from attack by NATO.

The merger of the Russia-occupied Ukrainian territories with the Russian Federation will mark the end of the ‘special military operation.’ An SMO is not something you conduct on your own territory, as panelists on the Evening with Vladimir Solovyov talk show remarked a couple of days ago.  It marks the beginning of open war on Ukraine with the objective of the enemy’s unconditional capitulation. This will likely entail the removal of the civil and military leadership and, very likely, the dismemberment of Ukraine.  After all, the Kremlin warned more than a year ago that the US-dictated course of NATO membership for Ukraine will result in its loss of statehood. However, these particular objectives were not declared up to now; the SMO was about defending the Donbas against genocide and about de-nazification of Ukraine, itself a rather vague concept.

Adding another 300,000 men at arms to the force deployed by Russia in Ukraine represents a near doubling and surely will address the shortages of infantry numbers that has limited Russia’s ability to ‘conquer’ Ukraine. It was precisely lack of boots on the ground that explains Russia’s painful and embarrassing withdrawal from the Kharkov region in the past two weeks. They could not resist the massive concentration of Ukrainian forces against their own thinly guarded hold on the region. The strategic value of the Ukrainian win is questionable, but it greatly enhanced their morale, which is a major factor in the outcome of any war. The Kremlin could not ignore this.

At the press conference in Samarkand last week following the end of the annual gathering of heads of state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Vladimir Putin was asked why he has shown so much restraint in the face of the Ukrainian counter offensive. He replied that the Russian attacks on Ukrainian electricity generating plants which followed the loss of the Kharkov territory were just ‘warning shots’ and there would be much more ‘impactful’ action to come.  Accordingly, as Russia moves from SMO to open war, we may expect massive destruction of Ukrainian civil as well as military infrastructure to fully block all movement of Western supplied arms from points of delivery in the Lvov region and other borders to the front lines. We may eventually expect bombing and destruction of Ukraine’s centers of decision-making in Kiev.

As for further Western intervention, Western media have picked up on President Putin’s thinly veiled nuclear threat to potential co-belligerents. Russia has explicitly stated that any aggression against its own security and territorial integrity, such as has been raised by generals in retirement in the USA speaking to national television in the past several weeks about Russia’s break-up, will be met by a nuclear response. When Russia’s nuclear threat is directed at Washington, as is now the case, rather than at Kiev or Brussels, the supposition till now, it is unlikely that policy makers on Capitol Hill will long remain cavalier about Russian military capabilities and pursue further escalation.

In light of all these developments, I am compelled to revise my appreciation of what transpired at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting.  Western media have focused full attention on only one issue: the supposed friction between Russia and its main global friends, India and China, over its war in Ukraine.  That seemed to me to be grossly exaggerated. Now it appears to be utter nonsense. It is inconceivable that Putin did not discuss with Xi and Modi what he is about to do in Ukraine. If Russia indeed now supplies to its war effort a far greater part of its military potential, then it is entirely reasonable to expect the war to end with Russian victory by 31 December of this year as the Kremlin appears to have pledged to its loyal supporters. 

Looking beyond Ukraine’s possible loss of statehood, a Russian victory will mean more than an Afghanistan-like bloody nose for Washington. It will expose the low value of the U.S. military umbrella for EU member states and will necessarily lead to re-evaluation of Europe’s security architecture, which is what the Russians were demanding before their incursion into Ukraine was launched in February.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

49 thoughts on “From ‘special military operation’ to open war

  1. An informative article as usual. Russian victory by 31 December. Very interesting. Yet you don’t hint at what would likely constitute a Russian victory.

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    1. Yes he does but you are thinking militarily?
      The shift to ‘multi polar or Eurasian centered global order is not so much a Russian victory as a release of the US Hegemaniac.
      In time expect a rehabilitated Europe and USA (Which is more likely to fragment than RF)

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  2. Thank you. Very informative and your final paragraph gets onto what true victory looks like for Russia, and the peoples (not the current governments) of Europe: namely it seems, a new durable security arrangement that maintains peace and which is not dependent on the US. Something like the long lost Concert of Europe, that Russia was always very much a full member of. There is certainly a long way to go to get to that but history can sometimes move quickly!

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  3. Will those referendums be binding for the whole of the Oblasts, or only for the part which Russia controls up to now? How could anyone take serious any referendum about Zaporizhie while at least half of the population is unable to vote?

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  4. “In light of all these developments, I am compelled to revise my appreciation of what transpired at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting. Western media have focused full attention on only one issue: the supposed friction between Russia and its main global friends, India and China, over its war in Ukraine. That seemed to me to be grossly exaggerated. Now it appears to be utter nonsense.”

    It never made sense that India cared (It doesn’t seem like given the current state of Pakistan that the West can punish it anyway) and China would only care in terms of global disruption or in attracted unwanted attention from the US since it’s grand strategy works on the premise that every day they get stronger and the US weaker and to wait and not challenge the US directly to best ensure a peaceful rise with the most legitimacy. If the US forced this into a proxy war to test it’s hegemony the Chinese would be obliged to help Russia. China has already become too powerful for the US to challenge directly.

    “Looking beyond Ukraine’s possible loss of statehood, a Russian victory will mean more than an Afghanistan-like bloody nose for Washington. It will expose the low value of the U.S. military umbrella for EU member states and will necessarily lead to re-evaluation of Europe’s security architecture, which is what the Russians were demanding before their incursion into Ukraine was launched in February.”

    That was already the case in 2014 when Russian annexed Crimea. That was even more the case in March 2022 when it became clear that US intervention didn’t protect Ukraine at all (We can quibble about Ukraine not being a member of NATO proper and thus not under collective defense but if the US was prepared to go to war over Ukraine they would have, the rhetoric and propaganda against Putin since 2016 was more than enough) but rather led to it losing territory from a provoked Russia. That Ukraine was considered a weapon of aggression against Russia and that no part of Ukrainian territory was seen as being a threat for Russia to hold and thus no amount of it’s loss was actually considered a loss. (In fact even better, it makes Ukraine even more doubled-down in trying to get it back and hostile to Russia whilst making Russia look like an unreasonable brute to the outside)

    A victory from Russia won’t change that, infact it will be used to justify more NATO. There are just too many glow in the darks and CIA people running around with impunity now. (Ursula von der Leven looks like one) When Russia invaded it effectively shattered the legitimacy and confidence of those who argued against the aggression towards Russia and the anti-Russians (Read: Neocons and pro-US) have been running around with impunity. The whole geopolitical and historical context isn’t even remotely understood by the 15 year old girls on social media who are acting as the unpaid enforcers for all this. It’s a form of post-modern McCarthyism.

    A big element left unexamined is the expansion of the EU in 2004. Those states with a post-colonial attitude towards Russia are doing the role (As expected and pushed for by the US) of Britain inside the EU (Whose own exit was ironically fueled by the massive waves of migrants from those new states) as US proxies and neoliberal proxies.

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  5. Though our media would have it that Russia’s withdrawal was painful and embarrassing, it was neither.
    It was painless–Russia suffered 5 casualties–because it was well planned and executed.
    It was triumphal: Russia’s tactical withdrawal shortened its line and drew 6,000 Ukrainian troops out of trenches and into open country–where pre-registered Russian artillery killed all 6,000 of them.

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  6. Will Kherson and Zaporizhzhya vote to join RF? Have no doubt regarding Donbas but my knowledge Kherson is not good. Anyone have info on Kerson and Zaporizhzhya?

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      1. Some might justifiably claim that the referendums in an active war zone are a far more advanced democratic process compared to one that allows a clown and probably drug user, with no previous political experience other than playing the President on television , somehow to become President, appoint many of his entertainment friends into key positions and lead to the carnage we have now.

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    1. Based on a Patrick Lancaster video I got the impression Kherson was not particularly bothered either way. But that was some months ago.

      Anyway, the time to care about Ukrainian public opinion was 2014. This is now between Nato and Russia. I imagine votes will be ‘found’, if necessary.

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  7. Mr. Doctorow,
    What do you think about Poland’s possible annexation of Galatia? I do not even know how large that is. Also, are sanctions starting to effect Russia more going into fall and winter as you previously believed?
    John McGrew

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not Gilbert but I’ll take a shot at your first question. The idea of Poland annexing Galicia is extremely farfetched, for the following reasons:

      1. Poles have a sentimental attachment to the region, but they officially make no political claims upon it.
      2. Owing to WW2 events there is almost no remaining Polish population there. Lviv has a lot of old Polish buildings but is now a thoroughly Ukrainian city in population.
      3. It would be extremely costly to bring this poor region up to current Polish standards.
      4. Claiming part of the former “Eastern territories” would wreck relations with Lithuania, which would begin to fear a Polish move on Vilnius.
      5. It would also make some Germans wonder if they now had a right to get their own “Eastern territories” back. In short – EU and NATO wouldn’t tolerate such a move.

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  8. “it is unlikely that policy makers on Capitol Hill will long remain cavalier about Russian military capabilities and pursue further escalation.”
    Well. They certainly have remained etc. up until now. Putting aside my prayer that you are right, how can you say that? It certainly comes under the heading of “however improbable”. Are you certain of the “eliminating the impossible” part?

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    1. Once again, from a true WSJ Saint, and, forsooth, the last sentence in his article. But you see the logic: “We won the Ukrainian war, but we had to negotiate a surrender in order to save the world. We are the world’s saviors twice over.”

      “Mr. Putin knows his war is failing, his position is eroding, and it can be salvaged only if the West pressures Ukraine to stop fighting and negotiate while Mr. Putin is still in possession of large chunks of its territory. The danger lies in what steps Mr. Putin thinks might move the West off its dime.”

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        Holman Jenkins Jr. is a WSJ old-timer, saturated with KoolAid. The opinion piece is basically a fairly routine Obama-bash, but in the last breath, he says what’s really on his mind: if there’s a nuclear war, well, it won’t matter if we control the Supreme Court, all the State Legislatures, the Governors, the Senate, the Congress, the Presidency, all the media channels, all the Corporate Boards, everything. Because none of it will be worth anything. As Peggy Noonan pointed out, WWI was bad enough, but WWIII, well, the old U.S. strategy of staying out as long as possible, and then reaping the spoils, won’t really play. Because there won’t be any spoils.

        The waves from these pebbles tossed in the pond by the likes of Noonan and Jenkins will certainly spread through halls of finance, where they are read like the Bible, and perhaps that will be that. The propaganda message will change, “We have won the war in Ukraine, Russia is defeated, but because a madman still has his finger on the nuclear trigger and we don’t seem to be able to dislodge that finger, we must save the world just as we have saved the rules-based order and nearly all of Ukraine, and give up a bit of territory to save the world.

        Would Putin pull the trigger? Well, he said he wasn’t bluffing. Gosh, it’s probably best to take him at his word. Just in case.

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    2. The optimist in me agrees with Mr. Doctorow’s analysis. I can see incorporation of the Donbass, Kherson, and Zaporozhie territories as an ‘escalation to de-escalate’. I think it can be seen as an elegant move to up the ante for the US and NATO without directly involving any hardware or troops. Of course it is an escalation, so it does bring risks. But it could also provide an off-ramp for the US & NATO; they could refuse to recognize the referenda while declining to apply military tactics. This is, after all, what happened with Crimea. So, for me, that is the rational optimistic outcome.

      Of course, the US foreign policy group does not usually behave in a rational manner, so I could be way off base.

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  9. “When Russia’s nuclear threat is directed at Washington, as is now the case, rather than at Kiev or Brussels, the supposition till now, it is unlikely that policy makers on Capitol Hill will long remain cavalier about Russian military capabilities … ”

    This will be the ‘litmus test’. Mainland USA must be realistically threatened (Poseidon?) if the road to peace is to be followed. PNAC and Wolfowitz Doctrine are still the central drivers of US foreign policy with the aim of continual US hegemony.

    Only when mainland America is seriously threatened with the sort of destruction it has blithely meted out to other countries (e.g. Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan) will there be genuine negotiations on ‘security for all’ and an end to US hegemony.

    “Ditching the dollar” is also essential.

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  10. Thanks for your post. There is still something I don’t understand about troop deployment: as of 2021, Russia had and army of somewhat more than 1 million men. What is the proportion of professional troops to conscripts? My recollection was that it was something like half and half. In that case, why didn’t Russia deploy more professional troops to Ukraine? Why the shortage of manpower?

    I’m a bit skeptical about the timeline to complete the operation, if the additional 300k troops need to be deployed to Ukraine: they require refreshment training of about 3 months, right?

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    1. I believe Russia hoped to complete the SMO without committing its best troops in abundance. They were held back to deal with a possible NATO entry into the war.

      I too think the timeline is a bit tight. I think the war will stretch into the next year, although I hope not very far. I just don’t see Ukraine’s military collapsing, even under the additional pressure Russia brings with the new troops.


  11. Russia cannot take only part of the Ukraine. Russia must take it all.

    Zelensky, the United States, the British Empire, the EU, Germany, Poland, along with the rest of Europe, has made this fact perfectly clear. The actions of the Baltic states have shown where their NATO mandated alliances are. The US regime change regime is agitating everywhere. Look at the Armenia / Azerbaijan conflict. Russia must take all of the Ukraine.

    When this complete victory will take place is unclear. The additional Russian troops are critically needed. However, it will take three (3) from mobilization to the training of these troops before they can be dispatched to the Ukrainian battlefield. That takes the next phase of the Ukraine war into January.

    A lot can happen in 3-months.

    Russian forces are no more exempt from a Russian Winter than Napoleon or Hitler was. To say otherwise is a myth. This includes Ukrainian / NATO forces. Winter is a predicament, not a problem.

    The Russian referendum of the occupied Donbas region is not settled at all. Zelensky has taken a page out of US sanctions, and promised harsh punishments, including the confiscation of all assets, even prison time, to anyone involving themselves in the referendum process. In order to deliver on these promises, Zelensky will need to take back all of the occupied regions — including the Crimea. If Zelensky carries out his plans, he only has three (3) months to take back all the occupied areas before the Russian army shows up in force. If the referendum succeeds than attacks on these regions would be a direct attack upon Russia. Open warfare would most definitely be next. If we have not seen the escalation of conflict already.

    Everything points to an escalation of the war in the Ukraine. Open warfare is most definitely on the table.

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    1. Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that Russia is capable to annex the whole of Ukraine. Which interest could Russia have doing so? They have to destroy any territory before occupying it. They would have to take care of a much longer border, and there cannot be any reasonable doubt that most of the population of Western Ukraine was hostile to Russia, and has become even more so since February 24th.

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  12. The comparison with “poor Belgium” is chilling:

    “WAR is terrible, and all our compassion goes out to the poor sufferers, especially to the poor Belgians who, we are told, are innocent and have been dragged into the fray against their will. Indeed, England declared war for the ostensible reason that Germany had broken the neutrality of Belgian territory. In fact much of the objection commonly brought against Germany is based on this same ground, and the German chancelor himself expressed his hesitation at violating Belgian neutrality and condemned the act as being an infringement of international law. At the same time, however, he declared that the Germans were forced to cross the Belgian frontier because they had positive and definitely reliable evidence that France intended to cross that country and attack them in the rear by entering the Rhenish provinces. Before the war began it was known that French officers were in Belgium in collusion with the Belgians. Soon afterwards it became known that the English general. Lord Kitchener, had been in Belgium shortly before the war for the purpose of conferring with the Belgian authorities and to look over the field to inform himself concerning the best ways of arranging military operations. Subsequent events have justified Germany’s action, for it becomes more and more apparent that the Belgians had broken their neutrality with both France and England long before Germany crossed the Belgian frontier.”

    So, a hundred years ago we have the fathers of the current “European” leaders playing the same double game with their people. What we really have today is NATO invoking Article 5 over crypto non-member Ukraine without getting its hands dirty. Whoever had this idea and is now pursuing it without limit will be responsible for the elimination of the human species, something, admittedly, that the rest of the earth’s species will great with unanimous sigh of relief.

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  13. A point you have perhaps covered previously, is that Russian reservists can only be mobilised on Russian territory. They cannot be used in Syria, for example. An important part of formalising the integration of The Donbass and Southern Ukraine into the federation lies in enabling The Kremlin to then supplement its regular, or ‘contract’ troops in Ukraine with reservists. As I understand, it is unlikely the reservists will see action on the frontlines, but rather fulfil many of the logistical and administrative tasks that presently absorb much of the contract personnel, thus freeing more contract troops to be deployed on the front lines. The recently mobilised 3rd Corps for instance, I think remain on the Crimean border, awaiting legislation that will enable them to then enter newly recognised Russian territory. Once cleared of that, we should see a great deal more attacking by the Russians, and probably a push for Odessa.

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    1. Do we know the overall breakdown, in numbers, of the troops on the Russian side? How many Russians, Chechans, etc… are in combat in each area of the fighting?

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      1. I can find none. I gather Chechens in the Lugansk Republic (sic) are used mainly in mopping up and behind the front lines security measures. It is significant that the military losses declared by Defence Minister Shoigu – 5,937 deaths – are ONLY Russian regulars and not DPR or LPR troops who do much of the front line work, nor do they include Wagner Battalion troops, strictly a mercenary militia, drawn from various Eastern European armies although mostly Russian, who have been doing a lot of the tricky assaults on fortifications, in rotation with the Spetsnaz. So overall losses for the Russian side are probably much higher than those disclosed. I would guess somewhere around eight or nine thousand – still nowhere near the Ukrainian losses. Shoigu’s figure of 61,207 strikes me as conservative. But hey, I’m no armchair general, just a concerned senior trying to glean a few more facts from the fog.

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