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Russia’s attempt to annex four of Ukraine’s regions should only strengthen western resolve

Vladimir Putin’s playbook for mid-autumn 2022, more than seven months into the full scale invasion of Ukraine, is dangerous not only for Ukraine but for the West as well. The most threatening part of this scenario is making the war a frozen conflict or even raging on for years, with Russians shelling Ukrainian civilians and blackmailing the world with nuclear threats. Russia’s sham referenda are a part of this playbook. But what does the attempt to annex 15 per cent of Ukraine mean in practice for Ukraine, Russia and the world?

October 4, 2022 - Vladyslav Faraponov - Articles and CommentaryUkraineAtWar

The signing ceremony of treaties on the annexation of the internationally recognised Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson by Russia. Vladimir Saldo, Evgeny Balitsky, Vladimir Putin, Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik. The Kremlin September 30th 2022. Photo: Grigory Sysoev wikimedia.org

Putin’s idea before February 24th 2022 was to capture a major part of Ukraine, including Kyiv, alongside the northern part, particularly the Chernihiv region, and almost all eastern and southern regions – not to mention the controlled parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions (the region called Donbas), as well as annexed Crimea. All efforts made by Ukraine, with the help of international partners, have had two major objectives: not let Putin conquer what he wants; and push the Russians back from Ukraine’s territory, including the lands it has been controlling since 2014.

Imitating a referendum and then incorporating a large part of land, while at the same time claiming to be obeying international law, was a big part of the Putin playbook in 2014. Then, he also used the language issue – “protecting” Russian-speaking people. These tactics applied both to Crimea and Donbas. In 2022 Putin invented a more eloquent justification: “liberation from Ukrainian Nazis”. In this regard, the referenda play a crucial role for Russians to demonstrate legitimacy, which the international community will never recognise.

What’s more Putin’s move has led to one more outcome. The formal declaration of having authority in some regions, where Russians could not provide anything to locals except torture and repressions, proves a lack of power, strategy and resources. This has resulted in the complete disapproval from the local population. Hence, there is little chance that Ukrainians in the occupied territories will ever accept Russia’s authority.

Why did this happen now? At the moment there is a significant Ukrainian counteroffensive taking place, with Ukraine’s armed forces already liberating some 8,500 square kilometres in the Kharkiv region. At the same time, Ukraine’s armed forces are continuing their counteroffensive in the south, too, in both the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia directions. These are the regions which Putin has claimed to annex and it explains Putin’s rapid desire to freeze the status quo as he cannot afford to lose any more territory. Thus, the upcoming de-occupation of the south is a significant threat to Putin. In this case, he may raise the stakes with nuclear blackmail by demanding a lift of the sanctions and force Volodymyr Zelenskyy to negotiate and surrender.

In response to Putin’s announced “partial mobilisation” hundreds of thousands of Russians, mostly men, have fled the country to avoid conscription. Predictably Putin’s decision for mobilisation was not seen as a very popular one, even among his supporters. According to Ukraine, more than 60,000 Russian soldiers have died in this war of Russia’s choice, and the mobilisation will only increase this number. In that regard, the Kremlin’s formal declaration of incorporation of the four regions into the Russian Federation acts as a diversion; an attempt to shift attention away from Russia’s military failures.

Another reason to speed up this attempt to annex territory is that Putin has his birthday on October 7th. This year he will turn 70. Given his deference to symbolic numbers, it is credible to assume that he has given the green light to make a present for himself, despite the ones in charge of those referenda not even trying to pretend they follow democratic standards. In the meantime, on the day following the illegal request of the four regions to join Russia, on October 1st 2022, Russian troops in Lyman, Donetsk region, withdrew as Ukraine advanced. Even more, according to the Institute for the Study of War, Ukraine’s liberation of Lyman has caused serious troubles for Russia domestically. Kremlin-sponsored media, Russian bloggers, Russian war correspondents, former proxy officials and Russian nationalists are all grieving the loss of Lyman while simultaneously criticising the bureaucratic failures of the partial mobilisation. Hence, the reality is very different from what Putin’s inner circle reveals.

There are three things the world can do to deter Russia from further military escalation. First, become even more united than before: consider responding to the threat of nuclear war in Europe as a real one, evaluate imposed sanctions and set new ones, including a price cap on Russian oil, to block every chance for Russians to profit from this war. Second, provide more substantial military and financial assistance to Ukraine, since Kyiv has shown its capabilities to successfully counterattack and gain momentum. Third, ensure that those organising these sham referenda and “implementing” their decisions will be held accountable with sanctions now and prosecution in a special tribunal after Russia’s defeat in Ukraine.

Vladyslav Faraponov is an analyst and journalist at the Kyiv-based Internews-Ukraine and UkraineWorld.

This article is published in the framework of the “Bohdan Osadchuk Media Platform for Journalists from Ukraine” co-financed by the Polish-American Freedom Foundation as part of the "Support Ukraine” Program implemented by the Education for Democracy Foundation and the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation. 

Texts published as part of this project are available free of charge under open access Creative Commons license. Republishing is allowed under the CC license, however requires attribution and crediting the author and source. 

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