The war in Ukraine is an even bigger problem for Putin than he realized. Russia acknowledged on Monday it doesn’t know exactly where the borders are for the occupied Ukrainian regions that it annexed following referendums widely condemned as sham votes.
In a call with reporters, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov said Moscow will need to “consult” with the local populations in southern Ukraine’s Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions to determine where the borders are for the regions it just added to Russian territory, according to state media.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees on Friday annexing four occupied Ukrainian regions — Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk, and Donetsk, making them part of Russia. The move followed fake referendums that were held in late September.
But Russia does not even control all four territories in full. According to multiple reports, Peskov said Moscow will recognize the existing borders for the east’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions, while the borders for the south’s Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions will remain up in the air.
Peskov’s concession appeared to be a somewhat-veiled disclosure that Ukraine’s ongoing advances along the war’s southern front have sewed confusion and triggered uncertainty over what land Russia actually believes it controls, which in some places seems inconsistent with what it actually controls.
Notably, Putin has not appeared to travel anywhere near the devastating war he started back in February — a stark contrast to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has made several visits to cities and towns along the front lines.
Ukrainian forces, meanwhile, have made steady advances in the south, with Ukraine’s Operational Command South saying on Monday that Russian forces have been “forced to retreat” in some areas.
“The Ukrainian offensive in the South is ongoing,” Ukraine’s defense ministry shared. Russia’s military acknowledged on Monday that Kyiv’s forces had managed to break through its defenses, the Associated Press reported.
Ukraine, and much of the West, have decried Russia’s attempt to annex the four regions — where Putin’s forces have suffered significant military setbacks — as illegal and illegitimate, with top officials and heads of state saying that they will never accept the outcome of any vote.
“The sham referenda held by #Russia have no legitimacy & are a blatant violation of international law. These lands are Ukraine,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last week.
The referendums in the occupied Ukrainian regions came after weeks of successful counteroffensives by Ukraine’s forces, which saw Kyiv liberate thousands of square miles of territory that was previously under Russian occupation.
Putin on Friday vowed to defend the four annexed regions, even hinting that he would turn to the use of nuclear weapons. Military and Russia experts have said that Putin’s annexation is a clear sign that Moscow is losing the seven-month-long war in Ukraine, but Putin is not expected to back down. Instead, he will likely continue to escalate.
Jake Epstein is a Junior Breaking News Reporter on the Speed Desk for Insider (where this first appeared), based in Boston. He focuses on military, defense, and security issues. Prior, he worked at The Times of Israel, freelanced in the Boston area, and interned at CBS Boston. He graduated from Lehigh University with a degree in journalism and international relations in May 2020. At Lehigh, he was the editor in chief of the independent student newspaper The Brown and White.