The Kremlin’s puppet leaders in occupied regions of four Ukrainian provinces tried to reverse Moscow’s losing streak on Tuesday, when they jointly announced they will hold referendums on joining Russia this week.
It’s a farce. Having started a war in which Russia’s invincible military, led by the infallible Mr. Putin, was expected to march victoriously into Kyiv, the Kremlin is now, seven months later, resorting to a Potemkin vote to annex territories from which its soldiers are in danger of being evicted.
There is zero possibility that these insta-referendums, organized by Russian occupation authorities and held “electronically,” will be credible or independent. They will have zero international legitimacy.
What they are is a weak attempt at providing some sort of justification, in Russia’s favour, of a war that has killed thousands of Ukraine civilians, made refugees of more than six-million others, and is believed to have cost the lives of tens of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers.
The referendum organizers know the outcome in advance; the inevitable result will be brandished as proof that the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces are now Russian soil. This will no doubt be used to say that an attack on them is no different than an attack on Moscow.
It’s all a bluff – an attempt to muddy the story of a war that has been turning in Ukraine’s favour, and to intimidate the West out of continuing to arm Ukraine, under the threat of drastic escalation if Kyiv uses Western weapons to liberate territory the Kremlin claims is magically part of Russia.
It is also a distraction from the fact that Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been an error-ridden disaster that has weakened him domestically and internationally.
He thought his “special military operation” would make short work of Ukraine’s defence forces, and that the government and territory of his neighbour would quickly come under his control. Instead, Ukraine threw back the assault on Kyiv last spring, and late this summer it launched a counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region that has so far taken back 8,000 square kilometres of territory, and may be on the verge of reclaiming more in the east and south.
He was certain the West wouldn’t impose serious economic sanctions on Russia; he was certain that NATO would fracture; he was certain that Ukraine wouldn’t get much military aid. Error, error, error.
He thought he could break Europe’s resolve by shutting off natural gas supplies as winter approaches, but despite the pain, and more pain likely to come, Europe hasn’t buckled. European countries have been building up gas reserves, providing citizens with financial relief from high energy costs, and rapidly forging a future without Russian energy. Mr. Putin, leader of a country dependent on oil and gas revenues, is losing his biggest and best oil and gas customer, forever.
He believed that China and India, the two largest economies that haven’t imposed sanctions on Russia, and whose leaders share various degrees of antipathy to a U.S.-led world, would unconditionally back his adventure. But just last week, Chinese president Xi Jinping and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi made it clear that they’re unhappy, and they’d like the war to end.
His underestimation of his opponents, his overestimation of Russia’s military might, and the increasingly lukewarm support from two key allies have diminished Mr. Putin’s plans.
At home, he now finds himself facing disgruntled hardliners urging him to pursue a wider war by mobilizing the Russian population, and liberal critics who have seized on his sudden vulnerability to openly call for his resignation.
Abroad, he is more isolated than ever, and escalating the war won’t win him any new friends. Not in Europe. Not in New Delhi. Not in Beijing.
The referendum ploy is proof that Mr. Putin is not out of tricks. The inevitable outcome in Russia’s favour could shore up support at home, satisfy hardliners, and give him an opening to be even more brutal in Ukraine, perhaps including targeting civilian infrastructure as retribution for battlefield losses, or using tactical nuclear weapons.
But like everything else in his war, this is not how it was supposed to go. The Russian strongman who thought he could roll over Ukraine in a matter of days is now seeing his forces being rolled back. He’s hoping to paper over those real losses – with mere paperwork.