Vladimir Putin has signed an agreement officially incorporating four Ukrainian regions into the Russian Federation. The Russian president announced in a ceremony in Moscow’s Red Square that the annexation of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia and Kherson in the south and east of Ukraine into Russia was “the choice of millions of people who share a common history”. ” with the Russian Federation.
“We call on the Kyiv regime to immediately end hostilities, end the war they started back in 2014 and return to the negotiating table. We are ready for this,” Putin said. “But we will not discuss the choice of people in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson. It was made. Russia will not betray them.
The Russian president did not clarify what the so-called newly minted Russian regions actually represent. Putin recognized the breakaway republics of Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donbass region in February, the day before his all-out invasion of Ukraine. But “republics” cover only a fraction of the oblasts – or regions – these names denote.
Currently, fierce fighting continues in four annexed regions surrounding Zaporizhia, home to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. The land grab is thought to represent about 40,000 square miles, or 15% of Ukraine’s territory.
Russian forces reportedly shelled a civilian convoy in Zaporizhia, killing 25 people. Moscow tried to blame Kyiv for this. Heavy fighting is also taking place around the key town of Lyman in the Donetsk region, where Ukrainian forces are reported to be close to encircling large numbers of Russian troops.
Putin said citizens of the four occupied territories would “forever” be part of Russia. He blamed the West for wanting to “colonize” Russia and its people.
But he said — as he has said repeatedly in recent weeks — that Russia would defend the territories “with all the forces and means at our disposal.” This was widely interpreted as a threat to use strategic nuclear weapons if Ukraine continued its resistance in the occupied territories.
Tried and tested charade
The latest annexations follow a model launched by Russia in Crimea in 2014. First, let your armed supporters oversee the “referendum”. Given the circumstances, such an event cannot be considered free or fair.
Second, unqualified and partisan regime allies from abroad sign it freely and fairly. Third, promote your ostensibly large democratic mandate to annex territories, dismiss illegal international objections, and pursue annexation.
Putin’s regime has a long history of cynically using “the law” to justify its actions. As Mark Galeotti, who has written 24 books about Russia and its politics, recently wrote in the Spectator, Putin is “a man who will burn your house down, but first give you permission to do so”.
Just as Putin has refined his annexation policy over time to legitimize and delegitimize Russia’s land grabs, the international community has learned important lessons about how Russia can use media and disinformation to increase its military operations.
If most of the international community doesn’t buy Russia’s line, who is this outrage really for? There is some evidence that Russia is shaping its international messages for the Global South (developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America). Since Russia’s international broadcaster, RT, was banned or blocked across Europe and North America, it has relaunched its Twitter feed towards India.
This reflects the rhetoric of Russian politicians in recent years, which has painted the country as part of a “rising power” bloc opposed to Western hegemony. Recent diplomatic efforts aimed at Iran and Putin’s appearance at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization reinforce this view.
But the idea that Russia is fighting a “colonial” West does not stand up to scrutiny. Before the invasion, Putin argued that Ukrainians were just Russians by another name and that their country was an accident of history. Russian state media argue that the whole concept of Ukraine as a sovereign state is neo-Nazi by definition.
Official propaganda in the occupied territories claimed that God was on Russia’s side and replaced Ukrainian flags and symbols with Russian ones. These strategies are familiar to any country at the end of colonialism. It is not true that Russia is sending a message about confronting hegemony.
On the other hand, the additions may have been intended to restore temperate indigenous populations. Russia’s state media has faithfully parroted the Kremlin line throughout the conflict and ruthlessly crushed dissent. However, Russia’s largest demonstrations of support for the war have been made, and Putin’s mobilization decree last week was met with widespread public protests.
Again, these public reactions underscored Russia’s colonial mentality. Many metropolitan, well-to-do ethnic Russians fled abroad. Ethnic minorities appear to be disproportionately affected by assimilation.
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Violent clashes between protesters and police in Russia’s North Caucasus region are no accident. Ethnic groups that experience poverty and systemic discrimination in the Russian Federation are being pushed forward as cannon fodder, untrained and ill-equipped.
As my previous research has shown, Russia’s national identity – and that of the Soviet Union before it – has traditionally been tied to its claim to military power and heroism. However, Putin’s war on Ukraine has made the Russian military’s inefficiencies clear.
There is nothing heroic about sending unwilling and unprepared young men to die in a war of choice. Russia’s political elite has long believed its own stories, struggling to believe that the audience for its claims is rapidly shrinking.
Catherine the Great’s lover, Grigory Potemkin, impressed her with the beauty of Russian villages by building 2D painted facades. Perhaps Russia’s confidence when it launched its invasion was due to such a delusional Potemkin military, over-hyped by officials unwilling to admit its corruption and decadence.
But resistance to Russian aggression remains, and its Potemkin referendums are unlikely to help turn the tide. Behind the facade, Russia’s grip on these illegally annexed territories remains tenuous.