This week Russia will conduct referendums on the accession to Russia of several of its conquered territories in Ukraine. As many have pointed out, these votes will not be remotely fair or open. They are being conducted at gunpoint and are intended primarily for the Russian sympathizers and collaborators in the conquered areas. The results are in no doubt.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has pulled this stunt before. He snatched Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 in a surprise operation and then sought to validate the conquest with a bogus referendum.
Pretensions Even an Autocrat Must Make
The point of these referendums is to create a patina of democratic legitimacy, making it seem that these conquered areas do in fact want to secede from Ukraine. In a way, it is a good sign that Putin feels the need to stage these sham votes. It suggests that even Putin realizes raw conquest is not a legitimate manner to acquire new territory. Even an autocrat like Putin, with no interest in democratic rule, believes he must go through the motions of democratic procedure for the sake of global public opinion. Even Putin must pretend.
The irony is that in a normal environment, the Russian position might actually win. Eastern Ukraine has many Russian speakers and ethnic Russians. There was genuine concern in the past that they might suffer discrimination in a Ukraine hostile to Russia. But Putin long since squandered that moral currency. He has repeatedly used ethnic Russians abroad as a pretext for intervention. He has even sought to gin up more “Russians” by handing out passports and citizenship. He similarly used the Russian-speaking population in Crimea to justify his aggression there.
Putin may care about the so-called Russian world in the abstract, but it has clearly served him as an imperialist gimmick in practice. Indeed, Russia’s war in Ukraine has fallen hardest on Ukraine’s Russian population. The war has been fought mostly in the east, where those people live. Russia’s heedless use of artillery to smash territory before sending in its forces has created huge streams of refugees from the east and devastated their homes. Today, a fair referendum probably would not return Putin’s preferred result, if only because the Russian army has devastated the places where Ukraine’s Russian speakers live.
Why the Sham Russian Referendums
Some of this is undoubtedly meant to give a pseudo-democratic legitimation of Putin’s imperial conquests. But Putin knows the rest of the world will see right through that. Putin, far from being a master strategist, is actually quite transparent in his motives. Instead, the more likely motive for the referendums is to create a political rationale for further escalation and to bluff the West over the use of nuclear weapons.
The annexation of these conquered spaces, faux-legalized by these pseudo-referendums, will define them to Russians as Russian territory. Then, if these areas are attacked by the Ukrainian army, Putin can claim that Ukraine is attacking Russia itself. And indeed, this is likely to happen. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has refused to recognize the legality of Russian conquests and has dismissed these referendums as a sham. Indeed, he refuses to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the fake referendum ginned up to justify that acquisition in 2014. He has also promised to liberate all areas conquered by Russia, and that includes Crimea.
This sets up a very obvious collision in the coming months. The Ukrainian army has recently turned the tide of the war. It has taken back about 20% of what Putin conquered in the east and south. Putin’s hasty, slapdash mobilization of Russian reserves this week is a sign of his desperation. With these new forces shipping off to Ukraine in the coming months, the Ukrainian army will probably use the intervening window of time to attack again. This will create, likely in the next month, a conquest of territory that Russia now claims is its own.
Giving Pause to Ukraine and the West
This opens yet another excuse for Putin to escalate if he so chooses. Further Ukrainian counterattacks can be marketed at home as the conquest of Russian territory and a NATO-supported Ukrainian invasion of Russia itself. An even more worrisome element is Russian nuclear doctrine, which is built around nuclear first use if the integrity of Russian territory or the state are threatened. Putin has made vague nuclear threats since the start of this war. If he is looking for a pretext to go nuclear, this is probably the best one he will find.
Indeed, that bluff is probably what he hopes the West and Ukraine will deduce. It is pretty clear now that Russia will not win the war conventionally. Even if these newly drawn-up reserves stop the loss of territory in the interim, Ukraine will keep fighting and fighting. It will come back again and again, until the Russians tire and withdraw, as they did from Afghanistan in 1989 after 10 years of war. It is possible a Russian tactical nuclear detonation could radically change the course of the war. It is likely a bluff, but it may work to give Ukraine and the West pause.
Expert Biography: Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; RoberEdwinKelly.com) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University and 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.