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Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual news conference in Moscow in December.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual news conference in Moscow in December. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg )

What many watchers of the war in Ukraine feared is about to happen. Separatist leaders in four enclaves controlled by Russian forces and their proxies in Ukraine announced “referendums” to be staged Friday through Tuesday to decide whether their territories would join Russia.

These votes, which are illegal under both Ukrainian and international law and viewed by most analysts as a sham, are similar to what Russia unfurled following its 2014 annexation of Crimea. Unlike then, the Kremlin’s military hold over these statelets in Ukraine’s Kherson, Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions is more tenuous, with Ukraine in the midst of an ongoing offensive to push Russian troops out of more areas of the country.

Further Russian annexation of Ukrainian lands — no matter the spurious nature of the move — marks the latest roll of the dice by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Humbled on the battlefield in recent weeks, he may believe changing the political facts on the ground could stymie Ukrainian advances and force a recalculation among Western governments.

“After annexing the territories, Moscow would likely declare Ukrainian attacks on those areas to be assaults on Russia itself, analysts warned, a potential trigger for a general military mobilization or a dangerous escalation such as the use of a nuclear weapon against Ukraine,” wrote my colleague Robyn Dixon.

At the time of writing, Putin was set to deliver a speech in the early hours of Wednesday morning possibly outlining Russia’s next steps. His country’s rubber-stamp parliament is pushing through a bill that will stiffen punishments for a host of crimes, such as desertion and insubordination, if committed during military mobilization or combat situations. Pro-war hard-liners have called for such tougher measures to buttress Russia’s flagging war effort. They also believe that a tightening of control over Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia will up the ante in the Kremlin’s favor.

“Judging by what is happening and what is about to happen, this week marks either the eve of our imminent victory or the eve of nuclear war,” Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of state propaganda channel RT, tweeted. “I can’t see any third option.”

Ukrainian officials were unimpressed. “Sham ‘referendums’ will not change anything. Neither will any hybrid ‘mobilization,’” responded Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. “Russia has been and remains an aggressor illegally occupying parts of Ukrainian land. Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say.”

That sentiment was echoed by French President Emmanuel Macron when speaking Tuesday at the dais of the U.N. General Assembly. He cast Russian actions since the Feb. 24 invasion as “a return to the age of imperialism and colonies” and spoke directly to nations in the developing world that seem to be sitting on the fence during this conflict. “Those who are silent now on this new imperialism, or are secretly complicit with it, show a new cynicism that is tearing down the global order without which peace is not possible,” Macron said.

Other Western diplomats condemned the mooted annexation plans. “Russia, its political leadership, and all those involved in these ‘referenda’ and other violations of international law in Ukraine will be held accountable, and additional restrictive measures against Russia would be considered,” E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement.

With the exception of the rhetorical backing of a clutch of far-right allies in Europe, Putin can’t count on much support from elsewhere, either. Last week at a summit in Uzbekistan, he faced a degree of pressure from the leaders of China and India, which have historically warm ties with Moscow, to draw down hostilities in Ukraine.

“Those countries signaled to Putin that he should end the war as quickly as possible, and stop claiming to represent the entirety of the non-Western world,” tweeted Alexander Baunov, a Russian journalist and international policy expert. “Moscow’s actions, therefore, are being taken to either end the war as soon as possible, or, if it that doesn’t work, to put the blame for that on other people, and turn Russia’s invasion of a neighboring country into a defensive war.”

Ukraine’s stunning victories in the northeast Kharkiv region set the table for this strategic turn. The rapid Ukrainian advance exposed a depleted, disorganized Russian military that melted away. It also further collapsed Putin’s propaganda narrative surrounding the war. For months, the Kremlin framed the Russian invasion as a “special operation” with an inevitable outcome - to bring an unruly little neighbor back into the Russian fold. The stinging setbacks have illustrated the seeming impossibility of a decisive Russian military victory.

And many in Russia are now getting the picture, too. “Judging by the scathing commentary in Russian Telegram channels and the shift of tone in the Kremlin-controlled media, Russians are in the process of losing the last remaining glimmers of their perceived military might,” wrote Gian Gentile and Raphael S. Cohen in Foreign Policy, likening the Ukrainian victory in Kharkiv to the American victory over the British at Saratoga in 1777, which turned the tide of the Revolutionary War.

That analogy may be a bit premature. Dara Massicot, Gentile and Cohen’s colleague at the Rand Corporation, warned that the next phase of the war - still massively influenced by Western military support to Ukraine as it bids to reclaim its lost territory - could see a whole new series of Russian provocations. “If the Kremlin’s annexation gambit fails to stop the fighting and support to Ukraine, the Kremlin will need to lash out to show it is serious,” she tweeted. “That means escalation that could come in different form” - including more missile strikes on Ukrainian civilian areas and energy infrastructure, cyberattacks, and exercises that involve the “brandishing of nuclear weapons,” if not their deployment.

The stakes are getting higher. The West “should remind Russia of the invisible rules of the war: that neither side wants to turn this conventional war into a wider NATO-Russian confrontation,” wrote Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage in Foreign Affairs. “A nuclear escalation would violate these rules and could lead to NATO involvement. It would be to everybody’s detriment.”

Meanwhile, Fix and Kimmage argued, Kremlin attempts to order a general mobilization may only plunge approval for the war among the Russian public and undermine Putin’s own grip on power. “Putin’s Russia has been unable to develop a clear concept for its war, unable to learn from its mistakes, and unable to execute many of the functions of a world-class military,” they wrote. “Mobilization per se would change none of this.”


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