On Friday afternoon Vladimir Putin will sign off on the annexation of four Ukrainian territories.
In 2014 he gathered the great and the good (and evil) of the Russian establishment in a hall in the Kremlin to witness him sign the annexation of Crimea into law.
It felt – indeed it was – a moment of Russian triumph.
He had pulled off an almost universally popular operation, at zero military cost and presented Ukraine and the world with a fait accompli no one dared challenge. Never has a shorter or more victorious war been fought.
It created a moment of national euphoria and a surge in Putin’s popularity that can only be compared to Margaret Thatcher’s victory in the Falklands – but without the hard fight.
This time the circumstances could not be more different.
No fact has been established. The entire Western world and Ukraine are united in opposing it. The costs have been astronomical. And Russian men are fleeing the country rather than get dragged into it.
The short victorious war is neither victorious nor short.
So what is the game?
For one thing, it is a statement of intent and commitment.
Russia’s constitution was amended in 2020 to prevent Putin – or any subsequent president – from ceding Russian territory once acquired.
This means even a partial withdrawal as part of a peace deal is impossible. There will be no surrender. Putin is very publicly nailing his colours to the mast of the leaking and increasingly top-heavy ship, the “Special Military Operation”.
There is also marginal military utility – he will be able to conscript local Ukrainian men still living in the area, providing much-needed cannon fodder for his hollowed-out army.
But most significant is the barely veiled nuclear threat.
If the Ukrainian army continues to try to take back territory, they will now be assaulting Russia itself – and therefore, the Kremlin has hinted, risks the wrath of the Russian nuclear deterrent.
Personally, I do not buy the claim that he would never use the bomb because it is suicidally self-destructive.
This war was suicidally self-destructive from the word go.
Even if he is not mad, Putin has made so many poor judgements in the past seven months there is little reason to trust that he would make the right call here.
If he believes it is in his interests, and that he can get away with it, he may well be tempted.
That said, the immediate goal is probably not to provide a legal excuse to drop a bomb.
It is to frighten Ukraine’s Western partners enough to force Kyiv into a “ceasefire” to allow “talks.”
In practice, that would mean freezing the war along the current line of contact and leaving Russia in control of large swathes of southeastern Ukraine, including the strategically important land bridge to Crimea.
That would buy Putin precious breathing space.
And as Leonid Volkov, an ally of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has pointed out, nothing is more permanent than the temporary.
The world would heave a sigh of relief and settle for a new Cyprus or Korean peninsula – an imperfect, but sustainable peace that could last decades. He would not have won, but he would have avoided humiliating defeat.
In reality, Ukrainians believe that peace would last only until Russia had re-armed, re-trained, and was ready to march on Kyiv once again.
That’s why they will ignore Friday’s ceremony in Moscow, and keep fighting as hard as they can to take back their land. After all, they are winning at the moment.
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