Putin’s annexation of parts of Ukraine is a critical moment for the world
Putin’s annexation of parts of Ukraine is a critical moment for the world
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Putin’s annexation of parts of Ukraine is a critical moment for the world

President Vladimir Putin’s planned annexation of parts of Russian-occupied Ukraine, after sham referendums there, is at least as dangerous a moment in the war as the marathon televised spectacle that prefaced Russia’s invasion in February.

Of course, things have not gone as Putin planned.

Back in February, he sought to justify the invasion in an angry speech laced with legal verbiage coupled with a pre-recorded show of support from the country’s top brass. The only thing genuine in Putin’s effort to frame the “special military operation” as something other than naked aggression was Putin schooling the head of his spy service, Sergei Naryshkin, as he flubbed his script and said he backed the proxy states in east Ukraine becoming part of Russia.

Naryshkin was half a year too early and too mean in his ambition. With its invasion, Russia had planned to swiftly decapitate the political leadership in Kyiv, occupy a huge swath of territory, and exercise influence over a newly friendly Ukraine, perhaps leaving some troops there. Ukraine’s dogged resistance culminating in the lightning recapture of territory in the Kharkiv region has put the Kremlin on the back foot, forcing it to rush forward haphazardly with what has emerged as its plan B.

The would-be referendums in Russian-controlled parts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia – precursors to a planned formal annexation this week – were hurried and ugly, held at gunpoint and with shells exploding in the distance. They lacked the Potemkin pageantry of similar so-called ballots in Crimea in 2014, which were at least accompanied by efforts to entice voters with promises of higher pensions and Russian investment.

This time, in its urgency, the Kremlin appears to have dropped all but the barest attempts to make the referendums look convincing, opting instead for brutality. So why bother at all?

There was a domestic and an international agenda to the mock vote.

Putin’s main audience is at home. The day after news of the referendums, he ordered a military mobilisation – a deeply unpopular move that Russia has long avoided despite lacking manpower on the front. Russian disinformation has not always had to be sophisticated to find purchase, but people being asked to kill or die – or send their loved ones to do so – are more apt to ask why.

Despite Russia’s harsh crackdown on dissent, protests have erupted across the country and at least 200,000 Russians have fled the country since Putin’s announcement, often spending their life savings on hard-to-get plane tickets out or waiting for hours in queues at the border. Annexation aims, in one pen stroke, to transform the conflict from a faraway, limited “special military operation” that Russians could be jailed for even calling a war, into a battle to defend Russia’s own territory, not Ukraine’s.

Internationally, the other objective is to up the ante in the confrontation with Ukraine and its western backers. Putin’s announcement of the mobilisation was accompanied by the threat of nuclear strikes if Ukraine continued to retake its own lands. Putin – who attaches great importance to the Soviet-style patina of legality he apparently believes the referendums afford, however Kafkaesque – is aiming to make such threats credible and thus coerce capitulation. They also serve to stoke the false war narrative Russia is spreading via social media and digital diplomacy abroad, where it has had some traction.

All of this amounts to a dangerous new phase of the war.

Ukraine is fighting for its survival. It is not worried about escalation and has no intention of backing down. Its western backers do rightly fear the conflict spiralling into a Nato-Russia standoff. But Putin’s attempts to cow Ukraine will probably galvanise western support at a time when it risked flagging as politicians grapple with inflation and energy woes. So the war will rage on.

Putin has jettisoned diplomacy. While he likes to keep his options open, those are limited. Russia may be preparing its forces for a new offensive in the winter. If it seizes new territories, it could look to repeat the illegitimate referendums there. And it could still, most alarmingly, widen its strike targets in Ukraine or, in a desperate move, act on Putin’s nuclear threat.

US and European leaders are absolutely right to call out Moscow’s threats as risking catastrophe for Russia itself and to swiftly denounce the referendums as the sham they are, including by introducing a UN resolution. This last, couched as a vote on the principle of territorial integrity, will hopefully garner support from countries in the global south that have been less inclined to take sides.

It’s a critical moment for the world, including for media, factcheckers and big tech companies, to redouble efforts to counter Russian disinformation.

Read the full article on The Guardian's website.


Deputy Program Director, Europe and Central Asia
Senior Analyst, Russia

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