NATO is unlikely to back down as Russia is prepared to conduct “sham” voting in the occupied regions of Ukraine

Seven months after invading Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is poised to impose measures that will escalate the war at a time when the Kremlin is losing.

The prospect of the Russian President ordering nuclear strikes is now closer than ever. A chill has come down as winter approaches.

Mr Putin was due to make a televised address to the nation last night outlining a new strategy. But the speech was mysteriously postponed to today after a chorus of condemnation at the UN General Assembly, where the main theme was the victory over Mr Putin in Ukraine.

The Kremlin is planning two parallel policy changes. New laws passed yesterday pave the way for mass mobilization. At the same time, referendums on “unification” with Russia are being held in the occupied territories of Ukraine, including in Luhansk and Donetsk.

The result of these sham votes, which are scheduled to take place between this Friday and next Tuesday, will be to make these regions Russian sovereign territory. Should Ukraine then continue its push to retake its country, Moscow would insist that the Russian nation be attacked. That would provide Mr. Putin with an excuse to launch tactical nuclear weapons.

What Ukraine and the West must weigh is the seriousness of the threat. Is Mr Putin likely to launch an attack that would risk turning Ukraine, Europe’s breadbasket, into a nuclear wasteland? What’s the point of Moscow trying to occupy Ukraine, if only to wipe it out?

Before Putin’s speech, the Duma passed amendments to the Russian penal code that effectively create the legal basis for mass mobilization – like military service on the Vietnamese model.

At the start of the war, the Kremlin had massed 200,000 troops on the Ukrainian border. But Moscow has suffered heavy casualties – it is estimated that up to 80,000 soldiers were killed or wounded. The new rules include tougher penalties for desertion and refusal to fight during martial law. They also identify looting and “voluntary surrender” as separate crimes, punishable by 15 and 10 years in prison, respectively.

The second major initiative concerns the referenda in eastern and southern Ukraine, which are being conducted by pro-Kremlin puppet regimes. Given Kyiv’s rapid retake of territory, the act of formally making the occupied country part of Russia will raise alarm in the West. The Kremlin scrapped similar votes in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kherson last month as Ukraine reclaimed vast tracts of land. But there is renewed urgency to ensure the votes take place.

Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former president who has emerged as a cheerleader for the war effort, said Moscow should proceed with the annexation to present the world with a new reality that no future leader can change. “The geopolitical transformation in the world will be irreversible once the referendums are held and the new territories join Russia,” he said.

The move comes with a chilling warning that Moscow will use “all means” to defend itself. The two measures taken together, said Tanya Stanovaya, a political analyst, amount to “an absolutely unequivocal ultimatum to Ukraine and the West: either Ukraine withdraws or there will be nuclear war.”

The nuclear saber has already been rattled in this conflict, especially on Russian state television – and showing the way to escalation as a threat is far from realizing it.

It seems likely that NATO will not budge. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Twitter: “Mock referendums have no legitimacy and do not change the nature of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. This is another escalation in Putin’s war. The international community must condemn this blatant violation of international law and step up support for Ukraine.”

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022] NATO is unlikely to back down as Russia is prepared to conduct “sham” voting in the occupied regions of Ukraine

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