Today's D Brief: Russia preps for annexation; Nord Stream 1, 2 spring leaks; Medvedev's nuclear warning; CENTCOM evacuates ahead of storm; And a bit more.

We’re now 215 days into Russia’s invasion of Europe’s largest country, Ukraine, an operation that Vladimir Putin’s strategists thought would take just three days and culminate in a welcoming military parade through Kyiv with Russian tanks and troops in their parade uniforms. 

After seven months of fighting, Russia’s occupying army is holding its final period of “voting” in a hastily organized referendum across four regions of eastern and southern Ukraine—Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia—regions that Putin’s nuclear-armed military has occupied variously since March. Ukraine and its allies in NATO and among the Group of Seven nations have denounced the four referenda as a “sham,” and vowed never to recognize the results. (Canada even produced a 42-second video for social media explaining how what’s happening in those four regions is straight out of the Kremlin’s “illegal annexation playbook.”)

Kyiv’s reax: Referenda collaborators “will be prosecuted for treason” and face a minimum of five years in prison. “We have lists of names of people who have been involved in some way,” Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak told Swiss newspaper Blick on Monday. 

Russian occupation authorities expect all the “voting” to end quickly. “There will be a transition period, of course, until we teach our officials, in a good sense, when they learn the laws of the Russian Federation,” Vladimir Saldo said Tuesday, according to Moscow’s state-run TASS. “There will be this period,” he said, “but I expect that it will not last long.”

New date to watch: October 1. That’s approximately when Russia may choose to outright annex the four regions “voting” today. That day is also “the start of Russia’s normal fall conscription cycle,” which could rope in Ukrainians in occupied lands this cycle, analysts at the Institute for the Study of War wrote Monday evening.

Putin is set to address both houses of the Russian parliament on Sept. 30, British military intelligence reminded us on Twitter Tuesday. “There is a realistic possibility that Putin will use his address to formally announce the accession of the occupied regions of Ukraine to the Russian Federation,” the Brits say, and predict, “This aspiration will likely be undermined by the increasing domestic awareness of Russia’s recent battlefield sets-backs and significant unease about the partial mobilization announced last week.”

Coverage continues below the fold…

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Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. And check out other Defense One newsletters here. On this day in 1996, the Taliban took charge of Afghanistan at the conclusion of the Battle of Kabul

Developing: There seem to be three concerning leaks in two “major” pipelines carrying gas from Russia to Europe, Nord Stream 1 and 2. Fortunately, the leaks “will not immediately affect the supply of gas to Europe as neither pipeline was operational,” the BBC reports. Still, the damaged sections—located in the Baltic Sea between Sweden, Denmark, and Germany—prompted ships to steer clear of the area for a radius of five nautical miles from the leak.
“The biggest leak is causing bubbling over a good kilometer in diameter; the smallest is creating a circle about 200 meters,” the Danish military said in a statement.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called it “an act of sabotage” on a day when he and President Andrzej Duda welcomed Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen for what was basically a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Baltic Pipe, “a new system that will bring Norway’s gas across Denmark and the Baltic Sea to Poland,” the Associated Press reports from Warsaw.
“We can certainly not rule out [sabotage],” Frederiksen said Tuesday. “There are three leaks, indeed with some distance between them,” she said. “It is therefore difficult to imagine that it’s due to chance, what is happening.”

  • See some alleged imagery and video footage of the leaks here and here, respectively.  

Also today: Putin’s #2 official threatened to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine should “the very existence of our state” be threatened by Kyiv’s military—e.g., in an attempt to take back annexed territory in either of the four regions. “I have to remind you again, for those deaf ears who hear only themselves: Russia has the right to use nuclear weapons if necessary,” former Russian president Dmetry Medvedev said Tuesday on Telegram, and emphasized that his words are “definitely not a bluff.” According to his logic, such a strike would scare the U.S. and its allies from any further action and give Russia what it wants in Ukraine.
“I believe that NATO would not directly interfere in the conflict even in this scenario,” Medvedev declared, and added ominously, “The demagogues across the ocean and in Europe are not going to die in a nuclear apocalypse.” The rest of his fairly toxic Telegram post, in our reading, reeks of injury and desperation; read it over for yourself, here.
Medvedev could be looking to distract from ongoing protests against Putin’s military draft, which has caused military-aged men to flee the country in droves—especially across land borders around Kazakhstan and Georgia.
Almost 100,000 Russians have crossed into Kazakhstan since Putin declared his mobilization last week, officials said Tuesday. “Hotels and hostels are full, and rent has skyrocketed,” Reuters reported from the Kazakh city of Almaty. Immigration officials are now mulling a three-month limit on Russians who do not have a Kazakh passport, as the president on Tuesday admonished his country, “We must take care of them and ensure their safety,” calling the Russian response to Putin’s mobilization a “political and humanitarian matter.” Politico’s Eva Hartog says she spoke to many Russian men fleeing the country—often in their 20s and 30s—including one who told her, “I'm sick of my dictator.”
Some Russians are paying almost $27,000 for a seat on a private plane out of the country, The Guardian reported Tuesday. Destinations include Armenia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan, which don’t require a visa to enter.
In terms of unrest, “Protests occurred in at least 35 settlements on September 25 and at least 10 settlements on September 26,” ISW reported Monday. “Russian police also fired warning shots at anti-mobilization protestors in Endirei, a village of approximately 7,900 people in the Republic of Dagestan.”
Ukraine’s message to Russia’s mobilized men: “There is a way out. Do not submit to criminal mobilization. Flee, or surrender to Ukrainian captivity at the first opportunity,” said Kyiv’s President Volodymir Zelenskyy in his evening address Sunday. “The more citizens of the Russian Federation at least try to protect their own lives, the sooner this criminal war of Russia against the people of Ukraine will end,” he said.
Review the status of Ukraine’s ongoing military counteroffensives in the east and south via a tracker from political scientist Ragnar Gudmundsson, who updates regularly via Twitter. Catch his latest overview of allegedly mounting Russian losses (by comparison) in a series of charts, here. Review alleged Ukrainian advances around the Oskil River, as well as recent Russian movements in Donetsk, via ISW’s latest report, here.
Related reading:

Florida hurricane watch: “Non-essential” troops have been evacuated from the U.S. military’s Central Command HQ at MacDill Air Force Base, in Tampa. Meteorologists predict city residents could be in the path of an upcoming storm projected to make landfall in the Sunshine State sometime Tuesday.
U.S. Navy ships and aircraft are also leaving their 4th Fleet base in Jacksonville, on the other side of the state, at the Mayport Naval Air Station, base officials announced Monday. Naval Air Station Pensacola, on the Florida panhandle, has made no such announcement, though base officials are monitoring the storm and posting updates on its Facebook page. Nearby Tyndall Air Force Base, which was heavily damaged by a hurricane in 2018, is also monitoring the storm but has not issued any evacuation orders. 
Down in the Keys, sailors and families at Naval Station Key West were preparing Monday night to “shelter at home,” where they’re expecting power outages and flooding. 

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