Vladimir Putin today announced his annexation of four provinces of Ukraine – four provinces that he does not fully control, that did not vote to join Russia, that have been the site of mass killings and mass deportations since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. With this statement, the Russian president also declares war. But this is not just a war against Ukraine.
Putin’s war — Russia’s war — is also a war against a certain idea of world order and international law, an idea supported not only by Europeans and North Americans, but by most of the rest of the world, indeed the United Nations itself. One of the essential principles of this world order is that larger countries should not be able to seize parts of smaller countries, that mass slaughter of entire populations is unacceptable, that borders have international significance and cannot be changed by violence or at the whim of a dictator. Putin already challenged this idea in 2014, when he annexed Crimea. He also held a fake referendum at the time, but convinced many outsiders that it had some validity. Although some sanctions followed, the world largely gave him a pass. Trade and diplomacy with Russia continued.
This time, Putin is no longer able to even pretend that the farcical voices he made in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporozhye and Kherson have any validity, and nobody, anywhere, believes that they do. A simulation was played: armed men went from house to house and collected so-called ballot papers, and some people, left poor by the war, were bribed in exchange for coming to vote. But in regions where hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens have been evacuated, deported or killed, where violent conflict continues and where active resistance rages, nothing like an actual vote could ever happen. While Putin was speaking in Moscow, the Ukrainians announced that they were surrounding and cutting off a large group of Russian soldiers in Liman, a strategically important city in the Donetsk region.
Russia’s actions in these circumstances show contempt not only for international lawyers in European capitals, but also for Chinese politicians who like to talk about sovereignty and African diplomats who have agreed that borders are important, even when they are arbitrary. In the twisted reality that Putin has created, he will now claim that Ukrainians, defending their country and their people, are somehow attacking Russia. He’ll even up the ante, try to scare Ukraine and the West by calling Ukrainian self-defense an existential threat to Russia that requires an extraordinary response — perhaps even a nuclear response, repeating a threat he’s made repeatedly since launching his invasion.
This annexation is also, more precisely, a declaration of war on the democratic world, a declaration of contempt for democracy itself. For decades, Putin has treated democracy as a tool, using fake parties, creating fake opponents and rigging elections. For a long time, he and his spin doctors promoted a form of “managed democracy,” a system that allowed room for public opinion while at the same time ensuring that he always remained in power. With today’s announcement, he is no longer pretending and playing games. This contrived farce makes fun of the very idea of a referendum, of voting, of popular opinion. Nothing about this act has any legitimacy, and that’s also part of the point. In his world, there is no such thing as legitimacy. Only brutality matters.
Finally, this annexation marks the culmination of a two-decade war against all Russians whose vision of their country differs from his. Some of those Russians belong to ethnic minority groups — Dagestanis, Buryats, Tuvans, Crimean Tatars, all of whom are undergoing vigorous mobilization, as if Putin wants to use his genocidal war against Ukraine to eliminate them as well. Some simply want to live in a country with different rules, a country that does not have murderous plans towards its neighbors, a country that is not a threat to the world. Although thousands of such people have fled the country over the past decade, the invasion deliberately sparked a new exodus. Putin’s propagandists celebrated the departure of anti-war Russians as a form of cleansing; Putin himself said that the nation should “spit them out like a fly accidentally flew into their mouth.”
Since the war began, the crackdown at home has also accelerated, because the war provides a context in which dissent can be portrayed as treason, and because any criticism of the war is a crime. Newspapers, websites, social media channels and civic groups of all kinds have been shut down. More than 16,400 Russians were detained in prison for protesting. In the past few days, some protesters have received draft notices after being taken to jail. Others are now the focus of special efforts to undermine and destroy them. Alexei Navalny, the Russian politician who came closest to creating a grassroots, anti-Putin pro-democracy movement, was sentenced to nine years in prison in May and is now locked up in a maximum-security prison. He spent most of the last few weeks in solitary confinement, as punishment for petty (or imaginary) infractions of prison rules. Other prisoners are forbidden to talk to him or even look at him. But his anti-corruption foundation continues to operate in exile (I am an unpaid member of its advisory board). And when he was allowed to speak in an internal prison court last week, Navalny responded to Putin’s call for the mobilization of military reservists without mincing words: “It is already clear that the ongoing criminal war is getting worse and deeper, and Putin is trying to involve as many people as possible. He wants to stain hundreds of thousands of people with this blood.”
Vladimir Kara-Murza, another opposition politician who played an important role in the campaign for individual sanctions, is also in prison, where he remains just as defiant. “It still amazes me,” he told one interviewer via smuggled messages, “how many serious Western analysts buy the Kremlin’s propaganda about the ‘enormous popularity’ of Putin and the war.” If this were true, the authorities would not have to rig elections, gag the media, imprison and kill their opponents. The Kremlin knows the real situation — and the only thing left in its toolbox to prevent protests in Russia is fear.
Today’s annexation, along with the mobilization launched to defend these occupied territories, is also designed to heighten that fear. The battle against independent thinkers is now spreading beyond Putin’s opponents and reaching even Russians who in the past have felt too distant, too apathetic or too afraid to protest. If once upon a time the threat of the gulag was used to keep all Soviet citizens in a state of permanent fear, the threat of war in Ukraine is now being used in exactly the same way against Putin’s subjects. The regime is now treating ordinary citizens as if they were expendable prisoners, throwing untrained, ill-equipped people onto the battlefield, where some are said to have already died. New recruits are forced into empty fields without shelter or food, just as new prisoners were once abandoned in the 1930s to build their own labor camps. Putin, like Stalin, believes that his sinister, unbalanced idea of collective glory is more important than the prosperity, well-being, happiness, and even physical existence of ordinary Russians.
But nothing lasts forever: “Your time will pass,” Navalny told his jailers last week. Kara-Murza said the same thing in a prison interview published this week: “None of us know exactly how and when Putin’s regime will end — but we know it will.”
And they are right. We don’t know how or when it will end. Nor do we know what regime will follow. But there is nothing predetermined about Putinism or its form of kleptocratic autocracy. There is nothing “forever” about the annexation of territories not even under full Russian control, and none of the people who attended the annexation ceremony today will live forever. Russia’s fake annexation of Ukrainian land will end, no matter what fake words are spoken this week.