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analysis

A billboard promoting contract army service with an image of a serviceman and the slogan reading 'Serving Russia is a real job,' in Saint Petersburg, on Sept. 20.OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images

Cornered at home and embarrassed abroad by the Russian military’s defeats at the hands of a smaller Ukrainian force, Russian President Vladimir Putin is escalating once more.

Kremlin-installed officials in four partially occupied regions of eastern and southern Ukraine announced on Tuesday that they plan to hold “referendums” later this week to determine whether those areas will join the Russian Federation. The votes in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia – which will supposedly be held electronically from Sept. 23 to 27 – have predetermined results. There’s no need for Yes or No campaigns.

What matters far more than the sham process, which no countries aside from Russia and maybe the totalitarian likes of Syria and Myanmar will recognize, is what comes next.

Eight years ago, after a similarly undemocratic vote was held in occupied Crimea, Mr. Putin quickly moved to annex the peninsula. It’s likely he’ll do the same this time.

The world reacted to the taking of Crimea with sharply worded statements, and the United States, Canada, the European Union and other countries imposed the first of many rounds of sanctions against Russia. This time, Kremlin propagandists are already talking about nuclear war.

“Judging by what is happening and still about to happen, this week marks either the eve of our imminent victory, or the eve of nuclear war,” Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the Kremlin-run RT news channel, wrote on Twitter. “I can’t see a third possibility.”

Adding to the swirling intrigue, RT and other state television channels announced that Mr. Putin would address the country at 8 p.m. Moscow time on Tuesday. By 10:22 p.m., there had still been no speech, and Ms. Simonyan wrote that those waiting should “go to sleep.”

Forbes Russia later reported that a pre-recorded address would be broadcast early Wednesday morning, Moscow time.

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy head of the country’s Security Council, suggested the votes would clear the way for military escalation. “Encroachment onto the territory of Russia is a crime which allows you to use all self-defence forces,” he said in a social media post.

The hawks’ logic is dangerous and simple. The war that Mr. Putin launched on Feb. 24 has so far been fought on Ukrainian territory. The counteroffensive that Ukraine launched at the start of this month – one that has resulted in a rout of Russian forces in the Kharkiv region – has brought them to the Russian border, and placed them on the verge of entering territory in Donetsk and Luhansk that has since 2014 been controlled by Russian proxy forces, who proclaimed two independent “people’s republics” that are recognized only by Moscow and Damascus.

If Mr. Putin annexes those parts of Ukraine, as well as the chunks of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions that his troops have captured since February, any continuation of the Ukrainian counteroffensive could be portrayed by the Kremlin as an attack on Russian territory.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said during a news conference on Tuesday that his country would ignore the referendums. “The Russians can do whatever they want. It will not change anything,” he said.

“Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them, whatever Russia has to say,” he added in a tweet.

Western governments were also quick to denounce the Kremlin’s moves. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrote on Twitter that the referendums are “a blatant violation of international law” and “a further escalation of war.” French President Emmanuel Macron called them “cynical” and “a parody.”

Attacking Russian territory is something Ukraine has so far avoided doing – though the Ukrainian military has only winkingly half-denied responsibility for a series of explosions in occupied Crimea and the Russian border region of Belgorod. Such attacks are also something Ukraine’s allies in the West have warned Kyiv against. The Biden administration supplied Ukraine with HIMARS long-range rocket systems, for instance, on the condition that they not be used to strike inside Russia.

If Mr. Putin annexes the 15 per cent of Ukraine currently under Russian military control, and Ukraine continues its counteroffensive, Mr. Putin will almost certainly escalate again.

For instance, he could formally declare that Russia is at war with Ukraine. Until now, Russian propaganda has stuck to the fiction that this is only a “special military operation” – not a war – aimed at liberating Ukraine from its supposedly Nazi rulers. The special military operation, of course, was supposed to end within a matter of days, with Russian troops capturing Kyiv and replacing the elected government of President Volodymyr Zelensky with a pro-Russian junta. The conflict is about to enter its eighth month.

Declaring war would allow Mr. Putin to impose martial law at home, call up Russia’s two million reservists, and mobilize his country’s economy behind the war effort. It’s a step the Kremlin has been loathe to take because it fears domestic backlash. But the move would be justifiable if “Russian soil” was under attack. (It’s unclear at this point whether Moscow’s plans include only the areas currently under Russian military control, or the entire territories of the four Ukrainian provinces.)

The groundwork for steps like these is being laid speedily. On Tuesday, Russia’s parliament, the Duma, unanimously passed legislation that introduces the legal concepts of mobilization and martial law. Also, voluntarily surrendering to the enemy was made a crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

But hundreds of thousands of poorly trained reservists operating Soviet-era tanks and equipment might not be enough to reverse Russia’s fortunes on battlefields, where Ukraine’s generals have proved more tactically adept than their foes. Morale has bottomed out among the professional Russian soldiers in Ukraine, who deserted their equipment and fled as soon as they realized they were outflanked in the Kharkiv region. Ukrainian troops, meanwhile, have repeatedly shown they will fight to the death to defend their homes and families.

The other tool Mr. Putin has yet to deploy is, as Ms. Simonyan suggests, the country’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Putin’s security services have shown no reservations about using chemical weapons, and even radioactive poisons, against political opponents like Alexey Navalny, Sergey Skripal and Alexander Litvinenko.

With Mr. Putin facing military defeat and growing criticism at home – dozens of municipal deputies have called for the President to resign, and pop superstar Alla Pugacheva this week became the war’s most famous Russian critic – the possibility that he will deploy such horrors in Ukraine feels increasingly real.

On Sunday, U.S. President Joe Biden, in response to a question from a TV interviewer, warned Mr. Putin not to use chemical or tactical nuclear weapons. “Don’t, don’t, don’t,” he said.

“You will change the face of war unlike anything since World War II,” Mr. Biden added. He promised an unspecified but “consequential” answer if Russia used such weapons. “The extent of what they do will determine what response would occur.”

Tactical nuclear weapons have smaller explosive yields than strategic nuclear weapons, which can annihilate entire cities. Designed for battlefield use, tactical nukes have never been deployed in conflict. Russia is believed to have the world’s biggest arsenal of them, with stores of between 1,000 and 2,000.

Ukraine’s top general, Valery Zaluzhny, has also warned recently of the possibility that Russia might use nuclear weapons to try to reverse its battlefield defeats.

“There is a direct threat of the use, under certain circumstances, of tactical nuclear weapons by the Russian armed forces,” Gen. Zaluzhny wrote in an article carried by Ukraine’s official Ukrinform news wire on Sept. 7, following the start of the Kharkiv counteroffensive.

“It is also impossible to completely rule out the possibility of the direct involvement of the world’s leading countries in a ‘limited’ nuclear conflict, in which the prospect of World War III is already directly visible.”