Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is digging a deeper hole that might swallow him because of his unilateral annexation of four Ukrainian regions through military conquest.
All the more since his conquest is so fragile that the Ukrainian military snatched back a strategic town within hours of his declaration. Earlier, it recaptured within a week territory that took his military several months to occupy.
UN Chief Antonio Guterres immediately condemned the annexation as illegal and unacceptable in the bluntest possible terms. “The UN Charter is clear. Any annexation of a State’s territory by another State resulting from the threat or use of force is a violation of the Principles of the UN Charter and international law,” he said. “It is a dangerous escalation. It has no place in the modern world. It must not be accepted.”
His rejection of the annexation is significant because no territory is accepted as being legal under international law without UN approval.
“I want to underscore that the so-called “referenda” in the occupied regions were conducted during active armed conflict, in areas under Russian occupation, and outside Ukraine’s legal and constitutional framework. They cannot be called a genuine expression of the popular will,” Guterres insisted.
“The position of the United Nations is unequivocal: we are fully committed to the sovereignty, unity, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine, within its internationally recognized borders, in accordance with the relevant UN resolutions.”
The US and its European allies have firmly declared that they will never accept the annexation. They are also announcing new financial, trade and economic punishments for Moscow. But they failed to get condemnation by the UN Security Council because Russia vetoed the US-led resolution and China and India abstained.
Putin suffered a humiliating set back when Russian troops were forced to retreat from the town of Lyman within hours of Putin’s declaration that “forever” annexed Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. The town had been used as a logistics hub by Russia’s military for its invasion and recapture has put Ukraine’s military in a better position to undertake campaigns in the Donetsk and Luhansk region’s to push out Russian troops.
But the annexation should not be taken lightly. It is not a symbolic step that condemnation by almost the entire world can overturn. The West has been describing it as an act of desperation by Putin as Ukrainian forces push back and acquire territory lost earlier to the Russian invasion. This is a misleading narrative. From the start, Putin said he wanted at least those four regions because of long-standing affiliation to Russian culture. He has done that now and can claim to the Russian public that his central war aims have been achieved.
Other war aims were to demilitarize Ukraine and install a Moscow-friendly government in Kyiv. Those may never be achieved but the annexation does give him a chance to stop his invasion if Ukraine and the US are willing to negotiate a ceasefire and subsequently a longer term settlement. To deter an American military intervention, he has again threatened first use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine because he thinks that Biden will not retaliate with a nuclear strike on mainland Russia.
In effect, Washington and Brussels do not have many options left. They have reached the limit of sanctions which already cover all of Russia’s foreign reserves and foreign trade. The US has also already designated for penalties almost everyone who is significant in Russia, including elite top officials, generals, major companies and even Putin’s children and presumed woman friend.
There is still room to provide more military aid to Ukraine but it has already received nearly $30 billion so far this year and US budgets of over $60 billion have been approved. Even America’s purse has limits although bipartisan support for Ukraine has not yet flinched significantly.
The European allies are unlikely to pony up much more because they will have to spend very heavily on energy and other provisions through the winter, as well as subsidising their citizens to prevent excessively sharp falls in income levels. Inflation has breached 10% and most economies face recession.
From the Western standpoint, Putin is an evil villain living in a wishful world with a military so decrepit that it is incapable even of conscripting soldiers. They apparently think that Putin could be removed from power if they continue their support long enough for Ukraine’s resourceful and so far efficient military.
However, the Russian people and their government may be far too resilient to fold in defeat at the hands of Ukrainians, who cannot stand for a month without large US help.