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The War Has Just Begun

The Winter of Yuri

I have been attempting for several days to collect my thoughts on the Russo-Ukrainian War and condense them into another analysis piece, but my efforts were consistently frustrated by the war’s stubborn refusal to sit still. After a slow, attritional grind for much of the summer, events have begun to accelerate, calling to mind a famous quip from Vladimir Lenin: “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”

This has been one of those weeks. It began with the commencement of referenda in four former Ukrainian oblasts to determine whether or not to join the Russian Federation, accompanied by Putin’s announcement that reservists would be called up to augment the force deployment in Ukraine. Further excitement bubbled up from the Baltic seabed with the mysterious destruction of the Nordstream pipelines. Nuclear rumors circulate, and all the while the war on the ground continues.

In all, it is clear that we are currently in the transitional period towards a new phase of the war, with higher Russian force deployment, expanded rules of engagement, and greater intensity looming. Season 2 of the Special Military Operation looms, and with it the Winter of Yuri.

Let’s try to process all the developments of the past few weeks and get a handle on the trajectory in Ukraine.

Annexation

The keystone event at the heart of recent escalation was the announcement of referenda in four regions (Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson) to determine the question of entry into the Russian Federation. The implication of course was that if the referenda succeeded (a question that was never in doubt), these regions would be annexed to Russia. While there were some rumors circulating that Russia would delay the annexation, this was never really plausible. To allow these regions to vote in favor of joining Russia only to leave them out in the cold would be monumentally unpopular and raise serious doubts about Russia’s commitment to its people in Ukraine.

Formal annexation is a certainty, if not on September 30th as rumored, then within the next week.

All of this is rather predictable, and completes the first layer of annexations which I noted in previous analysis. The reasoning is not particularly complex: clearing the Donbas and securing Crimea were the absolute minimum Russian objectives for the war, and securing Crimea requires both a land bridge with road and rail connections (Zaporizhia oblast) and controlling Crimea’s water sources (Kherson). These minimum objectives have now been formally designated, though of course Ukraine maintains some military activity on these territories and will have to be dislodged.

The Big Serge Annexation Map: Phase 1 Complete

I think, however, that people lost focus as to what the referenda and the ensuing annexation means. Western talking points focused on the illegitimacy of the votes and the illegality of any annexation, but this is really not very interesting or important. The legitimacy of annexation is derived from whether or not Russian administration can succeed in these regions. Legitimacy, as such, is merely a question of efficacy of state power. Can the state protect, extract, and adjudicate?

In any case, what is far more interesting than the technicalities of the referenda is what the decision to annex these regions says about Russian intentions. Once these regions become formally annexed, they will be viewed by the Russian state as sovereign Russian territory, subject to protection with the full range of Russian capabilities, including (in the most dire and unlikely scenario) nuclear weapons. When Medvedev pointed this out, it was bizarrely spun as a “nuclear threat”, but what he was actually trying to communicate is that these four oblasts will become part of Russia’s minimum definition of state integrity – non-negotiables, in other words.

I think the best way to formulate it is as such:

Annexation confers a formal designation that a territory has been deemed existentially important to the Russian state, and will be contested as if the integrity of the nation and state is at risk.

Those fixating on the “legality” of the referenda (as if such a thing exists) and Medvedev’s supposed nuclear blackmail are missing this point. Russia is telling us where it currently draws the line for its absolute minimum peace conditions. It’s not walking away without at least these four oblasts, and it considers the full range of state capabilities to be in play to achieve that goal.

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