Moscow has abruptly reversed its decision, made as recently as July 2022, to postpone annexation “referendums” in the Russian-occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine. The Kremlin had concluded that the prerequisites to minimally credible referendums, even by Russian standards, were not in place in those two regions and therefore postponed the referendums sine die (see EDM, July 21, 22, August 19). Now, suddenly, the annexation referendums will be held with only a few days of advance notice.
Almost as abruptly, the Kremlin has reversed its February 2022 decision to recognize the Russian-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk territories of Ukraine as “independent states,” complete with alliance “treaties” and “diplomatic” relations with Russia. Instead, the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (DPR/LPR) will now be annexed to Russia, dropping—albeit by referendum—the pretense of “independent statehood.” Moscow’s decision is all the more surprising since these territories’ leaders had long aspired for the official accession of their territories to Russia but were denied that wish until now.
The Kremlin has now decided to annex these four occupied areas directly to Russia and stage the annexation “referendums” on September 23–27. This move will bring those four satrapies to a common denominator with Crimea (annexed in 2014) as integral parts of Russia. The decision seems to have been communicated to the DPR/LPR and the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia occupation administrations simultaneously on September 18, for immediate and synchronized execution (TASS, September 19).
The Kremlin’s turnabout, accompanied by partial military mobilization, responds to Ukraine’s recent successes on the battlefield and its brightening prospects to evict Russia from at least portions of the occupied territories. Having started the rollback process in the northwestern Black Sea, Ukrainian forces went on to sever Russian supply lines to the occupation forces in Kherson and gained several footholds in the Kherson and Luhansk regions. The Ukrainian army liberated the Russian-occupied part of Kharkiv region almost entirely from September 5 through September 14 (see EDM, September 15). Ukrainian forces have proven qualitatively superior to Russian troops and look poised to regain more occupied areas step by step.
To stave off this process, Moscow is moving preemptively to designate all Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine as integral parts of Russia through “referendums” and annexations. When that is finished, Moscow will incriminate Ukraine’s efforts to regain those territories by force of arms as “aggression” against Russia. The Kremlin would, in that case—ostensibly in self-defense—threaten to escalate its “special military operation” in Ukraine to levels approaching total war.
Moscow is also prepared to bluff with its nuclear weapons, purportedly to protect Russia’s “territorial integrity”—including the newly annexed territories—to deter Western powers from supporting Ukraine’s liberation campaign. Russian President Vladimir Putin invoked both of those threats—against Kyiv and the West—in his September 21 speech announcing the annexation referendums in the occupied territories and partial mobilization in Russia (Kremlin.ru, September 21).
Outright annexation of these territories to Russia means that any Ukrainian attempt to restore the country’s territorial integrity, in full or in part, by force of arms in the future would trigger another Russian war against Ukraine. The annexations, therefore, are meant to compel Ukraine to abandon its ongoing liberation campaign, desist from any such efforts in the future and deter Ukraine’s Western partners from supporting current and future Ukrainian attempts to regain these territories by force. These annexations, in short, are intended to deprive Ukraine of these regions permanently, rendering Russia’s grab of them irreversible. While Ukraine has become quite impervious to Russian intimidation, it can hardly expect its Western partners to support an all-out war, however legitimate, for restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Ukraine and its Western partners have already announced that they would never recognize the validity of the “referendums” and Russia’s annexations (see EDM, September 23). Regaining the territories, however, would only be possible at the cost of another war—or another cycle of Russian smuta (internal disintegration).
In the short term, these annexations will again cast President Putin in the role of “gatherer of Russian lands,” the ultimate criterion by which Russian masses tend to assess their rulers. The annexations will also provide ordinary Russians with a sense of reward for war-related deprivations. Although the Russian Armed Forces have revealed grave weaknesses during the war in Ukraine, Putin will now be seen as having turned the tables on Ukraine and the West, ending up with another round of Russian territorial aggrandizement. These developments will probably boost Putin’s popularity ratings, consolidate his reputation for leadership within Russia’s nomenklatura class, silence potential dissenters in the ruling establishment and further reduce public support for the remaining outright opponents of Putin.
To avoid these consequences, Western powers need to arm Ukraine for victory, as distinct from a negotiated compromise with Russia at the cost of Ukrainian territories.