Putin finally ended the delays and spoke before Russia, calling for support for the “historic defense of the motherland” threatened by the West, which, he claimed, had “exceeded all limits” in its military support for Kyiv. He said that the special operation with which he invaded Ukraine had been “inevitable,” he expressed “Russia’s support” for the referendums in occupied Ukrainian territories between September 23-26 and announced a “partial mobilization” of 300,000 veterans, excluding conscripts.
He concluded with echoes of “Great Russia” rhetoric: “It is our historical tradition and the destiny of our people to stop those who seek world domination, who threaten to dismember and enslave the motherland,” “which we will defend by all means,” since Russia also has “various means of destruction” – in a response to Biden’s words two days before. Defense Minister Shoigu added: “We’re fighting not only with Ukraine but with the whole West,” and now the goal is “to counter the weapons supplied to Ukraine by Western countries.”
We have reached the expected escalation of the war – to the point of no return. After all, the statements had already reached a fever pitch a few days before: “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t [use nuclear weapons],” Biden admonished Putin, adding that the U.S. response would be “consequential,” implying that it might do it too. Equally explicit, and at the same time cryptic, was the response of the ineffable Peskov, spokesman for the neo-czar: “Read [Russia’s nuclear] doctrine. Everything is written there.” According to Russian nuclear doctrine, such weapons can be used after “an aggression against Russia or its ally with the use of mass destruction weapons”, or “when the very existence of the state is under threat”.
Putin now seems to want to force the application of this doctrine. Between one speech and the next, nuclear weapons seemed like a merely verbal threat, but this time there is the hint of a concrete one. Moreover, a few days ago the White House had again said no to Zelensky’s repeated request for long-range missiles, no longer just defensive, that could strike Russian territory, while at the same time the news was leaked from the U.S. General Staff that it was planning to send new-generation long-range tanks to Ukraine instead.
It is a tragic tit-for-tat, while “our” politicians are oblivious, immersed in an election campaign that has written off the war, despite the fact that it was among the decisive reasons for the crisis of the Draghi government. And it shows the irresponsibility of Western governments, which have delegated the task of talking to the Russian leader to Sultan Erdogan, who on Thursday repeated that “Putin wants to end the war as soon as possible.” This definitely doesn’t look like “the end of the war as soon as possible.”
With the announcement of referendums from September 23 to 26 (September seems to be the cruelest of months, in more ways than one) on the annexation by Russia of the self-proclaimed “republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, together with Kherson and the “nuclear” province of Zaporizhzhia – disputed territories, to say the least – referendums which are being pushed by Putin because he is in trouble on the military front and eager to seize what he has conquered and isn’t at threat of losing right away, serious and inescapable questions and facts become apparent.
It is clear that Putin is about to declare the territories subject to referendums part of the “motherland”; and that we are light years away from a cease-fire, despite the fact Guterres of the UN recalls the positive developments of the agreements on grain and some American commentators are pointing to the current “repositioning“ as a desperate endgame that calls for a rethinking of the crisis. We are light years away from the Minsk Agreements (setting out autonomy for the Donbass inside Ukraine), which, to tell the truth, were buried by the Kiev governments in the previous eight years of “war that wasn’t.” And the response used so far by the West of sending arms to Kyiv is also confronted with a dramatic situation, if the complaint by Amnesty International holds true, namely that the vast quantities of weapons arriving in Ukraine are being used by the Ukrainian army from positions set up in populated areas, including in schools and hospitals, which thus “endanger civilians.” With the escalation, these words ring twice as ominous.
The European governments, Washington and NATO are making it clear that they will not recognize the results of the referendums in Luhansk and Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. But what will happen in international relations if other countries such as China (albeit cautious and hesitant to get involved) don’t condemn them? Moreover, regarding the “normality” of holding referendums, one cannot forget both that many of those areas were majority pro-Russian at the start, but Putin’s war has destroyed Russia’s credibility to the point that things are not, and cannot be, like the referendum in Crimea in 2014. Furthermore, there is fierce fighting going on in those areas, and the Ukrainian army, galvanized by the latest advances, is not going to stop.
These will be “referendums” under machine gun fire, and in any case a violation of international law, a usurpation of a sovereign and “brother” country; while protests against the mobilization are starting in the streets in Russia, together with the attempts to escape the country of those who don’t want to be drafted.
On the violation of international law, according to the accusations made at the U.N., here at least historians will be able to recognize that Putin is mirroring, in a retaliatory fashion, behavior that the West and NATO had engaged in regarding the former Yugoslavia: the recognition of ethnically-based independence, the “humanitarian” war started against Belgrade in disregard of the U.N., the unilateral organization of a referendum for the independence of Kosovo in 2008, with the recognition of the result by the U.S. and most of Europe, in violation of previous peace agreements establishing the opposite. Let it be clear, Putin with his massacres of civilians is a war criminal; but there is a farcical element to the fact that those denouncing him are themselves war criminals who have left a trail of their own victims across the world.
In these “monstrous” times, as Pope Francis called them, “peace” risks remaining within the realm of fiction, what some would call “Franciscan” moralizing talk. But it is not useless to speak about it, while the subject of war, with its system of destroying humanity and expending resources with a permanent and “necessary” rearmament, has now returned to the forefront, and we are on the brink of a nuclear or “tactical nuclear” conflict. It should have been addressed in this Italian election campaign that eschewed all substance. The worst is already here, and it’s not just what will come after September 25.