PULASKI COMMENTARY: Putin’s Speech. De-escalation or Formal Declaration of War? (Sebastian Czub)

PULASKI COMMENTARY: Putin’s Speech. De-escalation or Formal Declaration of War? (Sebastian Czub)

The legal and organisational nature of the “Special Military Operation” has always been rather unclear. Neither an outright war nor a counter terrorist operation so common in Russia, it didn’t fit into the pre-existing legal statutes of the Russian Federation. Several anonymous informers from the Russian Department of Internal Affairs have reported to the Moscow Times that President Putin will announce the change of the “Special Military Operation” into a counter terrorist operation. Such a sudden change would have a number of consequences for the ongoing war in Ukraine, with some of Moscow Times informers claiming that it could lead to a de escalation of the conflict.[i]

Russian counter terrorism operation and regime

Firstly, the de escalation seem extremely unlikely as the shift into a counter terrorism operation would have provided a legal and organisational framework for continued Russian operations in Ukraine. Russian armed forces would be acting under proper directives, and much more importantly allow them, under the Russian law, to operate outside the Federations borders. While this might mean little to Ukraine or the western coalition, this would legitimise the ongoing war in Ukraine in the eyes of the Russian population and its bureaucracy. Interestingly Russian law dictates that soldiers have to give consent to be sent outside the borders of the Federation during the anti-terrorist operation, however, as Putin officially (in regards to Russian law of course) annexed several Ukrainian Oblasts the soldiers could be sent to Ukraine without consent.[ii]

The shift to anti terrorism operations could also calm some internal issues that Putin’s regime is now facing, including the outrage against the partial mobilisation. Going further, this change would also allow Russia to more easily mobilise its reservists, as the federal law provides clear guidelines on this, as opposed to the utter chaos of the partial mobilisation which was carried out in a legal grey area. This does not mean however, that the opposition to the war and conscription will be entirely eliminated, some people will still try to dodge the draft or in some other way oppose the war effort. However the announcement of the counter terrorist operation also allows for the implementation of the Legal Regime of an Anti-Terrorist Operation. This allows Russian state services to carry out unprompted identification, personal searches, invigilation and control of telecommunication, forced removal of persons and vehicles, as well as plenty of other actions that control and oppress the general population.[iii]

One interesting thing as well is the hierarchy of power in the anti terrorist operation. The operation is carried out by the armed forces, thus regular army and soldiers, as well as mobilised soldiers will still be involved. However the operation would bring order to the higher echelons, with guidelines and frameworks. One such vital guideline is that the operation is headed by a single individual, responsible for the actions of all engaged formations, thus solving the issue of multiple independent commanders and providing a clear chain of command, something that Russia was lacking. Furthermore the operations head is chosen by, and directly answers to, the President of the Russian Federation.[iv] Thus eliminating possible conflicts and encroachments from different political camps spread across the Russian government and its ministries.

The Chinese factor

While not directly connected at this point, the shift from special military operation into counter terrorism efforts could potentially allow China to supply Russian forces. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated, in an interview following the Munich Security Conference, that China is providing Russia with non-lethal support and that new information suggests that lethal support could be sent as well.[v] Blinken had met with Chinese diplomat Wang Yi, during the conference and discussed this issue, however as it seems not all had gone well. This was reverberated by a comment from Wang Wenbin China’s foreign ministry spokesman, stating that „we do not accept the United States’ finger-pointing on China-Russia relations, let alone coercion and pressure,”.[vi] The growing rift between US and China, and Blinken’s harsh words could go two ways, either successfully deterring China from supporting Russia, or push them to commit. A deciding factor here could also be the potential Russian shift into counter-terrorism operations. This change could theoretically provide a legal framework for China to allow the provision of supplies to Russian forces, as China would then provide anti-terrorist formations, rather than combat troops – a simple change in name, but potentially significant. China has been previously wary of openly supporting Russian operations in Ukraine, but these factors could heavily influence China’s outlook.

What if…

The information leak in the form of several high ranking officials from the Department of Internal Affairs, happening just before Putin’s big speech, the meeting of Russia’s Council of Federation, an unscheduled meeting of the Duma, and most importantly the anniversary of the invasion seems very unlikely to be coincidental. It is very unlikely that several high ranking officials suddenly managed to conspire and leak critical information to the press. Furthermore, while they supposedly remain anonymous the Moscow Times provided a description of one of the officials duties in the government – the official participates in meetings of the Department of Internal Affairs of the Russian Presidential Administration and approves the orders issued by it.[vii] This somewhat tears down the anonymity of the source, especially for Russian security services. This entire endeavour could be a part of Russian maskirovka – a strategy of disinformation, aimed to confuse foreign intelligence. This story could be used to cover the potential launch of a major Russian  offensive, this might be somewhat suggested by the comment on how Putin’s speech and changes to the operation might lead to de-escalation. Though this would have limited impact, as Ukrainians have been preparing for a Russian offensive for the past several months, a piece of gossip would not undo those preparations. Another, more probable, scenario would be that Putin would indeed declare a shift from the “Special Military Operation”, but rather than going into anti terrorism operation he would double down and actually declare war on Ukraine. This would go in line with several other factors, such as the widely speculated second wave of mobilisation, which could include drafting as much as 500 thousand men.[viii] Such a declaration would also carry a significant symbolic value, due to its delivery days before the anniversary of the Russian invasion – which also adheres to Russian fixation with dates. The hopes for de-escalation might very well be met with a cry to war.

Author: Sebastian Czub, Casimir Pulaski Analyst

Supported by a grant from the Open Society Initiative for Europe within the Open Society Foundations

[i] Dominik Moliński, „Nowy plan Putina – „rebranding” wojny w Ukrainie? Rosja może ogłosić „operację antyterrorystyczną””, Wiadomości Gazeta, February 19, 2023, https://wiadomosci.gazeta.pl/wiadomosci/7,114881,29479112,nowy-plan-putina-nastapi-rebranding-wojny-w-ukrainie.html.

[ii] “Federal Law NO. 35-FZ Of 6 March 2006 On Counteraction Against Terrorism”, Committee of Experts on Terrorism, June, 2006, https://rm.coe.int/ct-legislation-russian-federation/16806415f5.

[iii] “Federal Law NO. 35-FZ Of 6 March 2006 On Counteraction Against Terrorism”, Committee of Experts on Terrorism, June, 2006, https://rm.coe.int/ct-legislation-russian-federation/16806415f5.

[iv] “Federal Law NO. 35-FZ Of 6 March 2006 On Counteraction Against Terrorism”, Committee of Experts on Terrorism, June, 2006, https://rm.coe.int/ct-legislation-russian-federation/16806415f5.

[v] Samuel Horti, and James Landale, “Ukraine war: Blinken says China might give weapons to Russia”, BBC News, February 20, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-64695042.

[vi] Samuel Horti, and James Landale, “Ukraine war: Blinken says China might give weapons to Russia”, BBC News, February 20, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-64695042.

[vii] Dominik Moliński, „Nowy plan Putina – „rebranding” wojny w Ukrainie? Rosja może ogłosić „operację antyterrorystyczną””, Wiadomości Gazeta, February 19, 2023, https://wiadomosci.gazeta.pl/wiadomosci/7,114881,29479112,nowy-plan-putina-nastapi-rebranding-wojny-w-ukrainie.html.

[viii] Isabel Koshiw, and Pjotr Sauer, “Russia preparing to mobilise extra 500,000 conscripts, claims Ukraine”, The Guardian, January 6, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jan/06/russia-preparing-mobilise-extra-500000-conscripts-claims-ukraine.