A turning point in the Ukrainian war

With the grand ceremony in St. George’s Hall of the Kremlin on September 30, 2022, during which the annexation of four Ukrainian regions, representing 15% of Ukraine, was formalized through “accession treaties”, the Russian-Ukrainian war has entered a new phase. Previously, on September 23, Russia had set in motion a series of referendums to be held in each of the regions. The five-day exercise resulted in an overwhelming majority in favor of annexation. According to Moscow’s claim, the pro-annexation votes for Zaporizhzhia were 93%; 87% from southern Kherson; 98% for Luhansk and 99.23% for Donetsk. Immediately afterwards, Ukraine rejected the referendum organized by Moscow as “illegitimate”, contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and pronounced its right to redeem the annexed territories. Impartial observers said the referendum was a replication of Moscow’s 2014 scheme to annex Crimea, dispossessing Ukraine. The EU and NATO called it a “mock” referendum in strong terms; and the United States called it a “complete farce”, but Putin managed to argue that the legal position had changed in accordance with international law.

The UN was quick to declare the action “illegal”, but Moscow paid no heed either. Dismissing all opposition, Putin stressed during the annexation ceremony that “the people have made their choice” and “this choice will not be betrayed” by Russia. The Russian president also accused the West of wanting to turn Russia into a “colony” and a “mob of slaves”, which was not acceptable for his country. He categorically declared that “annexation” is a done deal and will be beyond the reach of any future negotiations. He also took the opportunity to clarify that Russia had no intention of returning to the “Soviet Union” and could not bring back the past. Later, Russian authorities openly warned that newly incorporated regions would be eligible for secure protection under the Russian nuclear umbrella. It is commonly believed that by his latest actions, Putin has in fact “burned the bridges behind him”, pressing options to conclude the war and pushing the conflict into a “dangerous new phase”. Indifferent to the cries of his adversary and the apprehensions of politico-military analysts, Vladimir Putin celebrated Russia’s victory in the war in Ukraine during a “patriotic pop concert” in Moscow’s Red Square.

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Developments before and after annexation have the potential to become a “turning point” in what is otherwise a stalemate war. Some keen observers of world politics have observed that this is not as simple a case as it seems; basically, this is Russia’s latest attempt to redraw the map of Europe, which will not be acceptable to Western powers no matter what. It has also been hinted that the move could prove to be a dangerous “sudden end” to the war, with the likelihood that Moscow could turn to unconventional weapons or even nuclear equipment. The United States repaid the same coin by approving more military aid to Ukraine and sanctioning 14 international companies outside Russia for allegedly supporting Moscow’s military supply chains. Senior US Treasury Department officials have claimed their moves would cripple Russia’s ability to source foreign components and technologies. The G-7 also announced the imposition of “costs” on any country that supports Russia’s decision to incorporate Ukrainian territory. The icing on the cake, Ukraine filed with the NATO authorities a request for “accelerated” membership of the military alliance. President Zelensky claimed that they had already “proved their compatibility with the standards of the alliance”. The decision must be made by all 30 members by consensus; in the meantime, NATO’s “hands-on and on-the-ground” support will continue.

US stocks, however, were unable to satisfy Ukrainian leaders. In particular, Washington’s reluctance to fast track NATO membership has disappointed them. It will not be out of place to point out that the cases of Sweden, Finland, Hungary and Turkey have been in the pipeline at various stages. Meanwhile, at the UNSC, a September 27 resolution condemning its annexation was vetoed by Russia, although the vote was 10 to 1 while four members (China, India, Brazil and Gabon) abstained. During the debates, Russia again stressed that the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO is one of its red lines and recalled that it was the main reason for its invasion. The Russian mission to the UN has also accused Secretary General Antonio Guterres of violating the UN Charter with his anti-Moscow remarks. After the failure of the UNSC resolution, the United States intends to take the issue to the UN General Assembly.

Putin accuses the West of staging explosions that caused multiple gas leaks on the Nord Stream gas pipeline linking Russia to Europe. The Russian shelling of a civilian humanitarian convoy in Zaporizhzhia, which left 25 dead and 28 injured, and the order of the Russian government to “partially mobilize troops” and “conscription” to enlist 300,000 additional soldiers, also indicates the level of escalation so far without witnesses in the 7 months – long conflict.

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Given the situation detailed above, it is safe to conclude that NATO-Russia animosity has in fact increased. On the one hand, the US-led West is determined to bring Russia to its knees; on the other hand, Russia under Putin is not in a position to return because that would mean the end of his regime and possibly the disintegration of his country. It has become a matter of life or death for both sides, and a win-win outcome is apparently not possible. As a rule, behind-the-scenes diplomacy proves successful in such situations. However, there is no indication that this age-old instrument is in play anywhere. The only silver lining in this otherwise bleak scenario was the Kremlin’s September 26 admission that “dialogue channels at the appropriate level” existed but were of a “sporadic nature” and sometimes “emergency messages ” are also exchanged. Washington also alluded to occasional “private messages.” IAEA chief Rafael Grossi’s plan to visit Moscow to discuss nuclear issues is also a positive development. Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s suggestion that “Moscow should consider using a low-yield nuclear weapon in Ukraine” is totally responsible. It is high time to solve the problem wisely and calmly because any negligence can lead to a series of unimaginable consequences.

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