Omer Onhon

Putin’s War on Ukraine Is Getting More Complicated

Russian President Vladimir Putin did what was expected. Referendums in Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk were held.

It is not known how many people living in these areas before the war escaped and how many remained, how many people participated in the voting, how many said “yes” to join Russia and how many said “no”.

In any case, after the referendum on Friday, Putin signed the decree and officialized the results of the referendum where “citizens voted to be with their people, their motherland” as he put it.

Together with Crimea, which was annexed back in 2014, Russia now claims ownership of at least 15 percent of Ukraine’s territory.

The majority of nations and international organizations opposed and objected. Additional sanctions were announced. The West reiterated its unshaken determination to oppose Russian aggression and to maintain support to Ukraine. They vowed not to ever recognize annexation of Ukrainian lands.

The US and Albania promptly presented a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council condemning the annexation of eastern Ukraine. Ten out of 15 Council members (the US, UK, France, Albania, Ghana, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico, Norway and the UAE) voted in favor. China, Brazil, India and Gabon abstained. Russia voted against and thus, it was vetoed.

Russia’s Ambassador Vasily Nebenzia to the UN complained that “it was unprecedented to seek the condemnation of a permanent member of the body”.

A permanent member of the UNSC is in flagrant violation of the UN charter’s basic principles of non-use of force, inviolability of borders, respect for territorial integrity and many others and its representative complains when criticized for doing so. That says something about the mindset that Ukraine is up against.

One of Ukraine’s first reactions was to submit an official application to join NATO. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated the alliance’s support to Ukraine but made the point that 30 NATO allies would have to agree for the country to join. What he meant was that there is no such thing as shortcut membership.

The main issue here, as is well known, is that NATO membership of Ukraine would mean a member state under attack, which calls for collective defense under article 5.

Almost everyone now agrees that when Putin started his so-called “special military operation” in February, he expected speedy results and a swift victory. His main objectives were to secure “ethnic Russian/Russian speaking” areas, to change the anti-Russian, pro-western Zelensky government with a Russia friendly one and to get it over with.

This has not been the case. Ukraine is fighting back. Even though it suffered a lot and lost a very significant part of territory, it inflicted heavy damage on occupying Russia. The Ukrainian army has recently pushed back Russians in a number of places and reclaimed their lands. Many Russian soldiers have been killed and taken prisoner in the process.

Setbacks on the battlefield forced Putin to resort to increasingly drastic measures.

In this sense, Russia has weaponized its natural gas. Other than cuts and bans in oil and gas exports to the West, Nord Stream pipelines have been targeted. Russia is suspected to have sabotaged the line. NATO made a statement calling it “the result of deliberate, reckless, and irresponsible acts of sabotage.” In fact, if this is so, technically, it is a case of a direct attack on the infrastructure of a NATO member and calls for some sort of collective defense action.

Putin’s declaration of a partial mobilization has caused an uproar. There were demonstrations against the call and the war in Ukraine. We have been following on the news of thousands of Russians leaving the country to avoid being a part of Russia’s war machine. But then, a great number of Russians have responded to the call, willingly or unwillingly.

The most concerning development has been Putin’s statements and warnings regarding nuclear weapons. He said that if Russia’s territorial integrity is threatened, it will use all means available to protect itself. As Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has stated, newly acquired territories come under this protection.

Russia’s nuclear doctrine and decrees on its implementation lay down the conditions for use. Nuclear arms can be used against conventional weapons and as “first use” weapons.

Experts compare the number of nuclear weapons and delivery means each side possesses and their military doctrines, but numerical superiority does not determine who the winner will be, as whenever nukes are involved even one is too much and it is a disaster for all. Everyone loses.

Putin has called for an end to the conflict. It seems that he feels he has achieved his objectives and is now ready to settle. Putin’s call translates into: accept annexation of Crimea and the results of the most recent referendum, live with Russia keeping 15 percent of your territory and we can end it here.

Let us assume for a moment that his call is met with a positive response. That would mean that Russia (or any other country for that matter) could act the same way in the future. In the case of Russia, how could Moldova, Kazakhstan and other countries feel safe? Would Balkans be in line? What would the implications be in Syria and elsewhere?

Not even countries supposedly close to Russia are happy with developments. Even though China and India abstained in the UNSC vote, they are not happy. Both countries have made this clear during the recent Samarkand Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Council.

Kazakhstan's president Kassym Tokayev has said that the territorial integrity of states must be inviolable and that Kazakhstan will not recognize the referendums in Ukraine's occupied territories. (Kazakhstan’s ethnic Russians are around 3.5 million and the two countries share a common border of 7,644 kilometers).

Kazakhstan already had a taste of the bitter medicine of “Russian involvement” in the past. They have reason to be concerned and they know what they are talking about.

Putin seems ready to take things to the extremes in order to get his way. Whether this is tactical and he is bluffing his way through by raising the stakes is a matter of debate.

Whether his countryman would follow him to the bitter end is another question. Putin has based his actions on the hypothesis that Russia and Russians are under attack.

Defending the motherland, fighting the enemy, which is out to destroy Russia, or restoring Russia’s so-called former glory or for whatever nationalistic and imperialistic motivation, his supporters are standing by him.

On the other hand, Putin also faces domestic opposition. Many Russians think that what is happening is madness and will hurt Russia. They have demonstrated their opposition in a number of ways, including taking to the streets. But they have not been able to stop or change things.

Putin and his apparatus have managed to keep things under control. Putin’s opponents do not have the power to overtake him. At least, this seems to be the case for now.