Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 558, 6 October 2022

Russia-Ukraine: Putin signs the unification of Ukraine territories into law
Padmashree Anandhan

In the news

On 5 October, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the unification treaties into law after the Russian Parliament ratified the same approving the annexation of DPR, LPR, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. This was done after the Constitutional court uniformly voted in favour of the treaty.

On 4 October, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a decree No. 687/2022 invalidating the various decrees signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin between February and September this year regarding the four regions and declared them “null and void.” The decree re-emphasized the internationally recognised sovereign and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

On 30 September, the UNSC attempted to pass a resolution against the “unlawful annexation” by Russia. “The draft described the so-called referendums held by Russia in the four regions of Ukraine which Moscow now regards as sovereign territory – Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya – as illegal and an attempt to modify Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders.” The meeting ended with no resolution due to Russia’s veto and China, Gabon, India, and the United Arab Emirates abstaining from voting.

Issues at large

First, continuing Ukraine's counter-offensive. Legally, Russia may have gone forward in declaring the four regions as part of Russia, but on the ground, Ukraine has maintained a steady defence and seems to be advancing rapidly since September recapturing north-western cities in Kharkiv. Ukraine was able to push the Russian forces further south of the city, launch attacks along the Dnipro River, battle out Russians north and south of Kherson, and recaptured Lyman. Simultaneously Russia was observed withdrawing its troops. Lyman is an important spot for Russia’s supply line, and also forms part of the Russian referendum. Ukraine now has the opportunity to advance further into Donbas and target Kreminna and Sievierodonetsk. Therefore, the coming months will be crucial for Ukraine and Russia to maintain their military supply.

Second, Russia’s retreat and annexation. On 21 February, Russia’s first move was declaring the DPR and LPR in the Donbas regions as “independent states.” Since the invasion, the Russian forces are observed to be moving forward to capture Ukraine’s main port cities, with only a few retreats in the western Ukrainian region. The situation turned around in September with a major retreat from Kharkiv, Kherson, and Lyman, possibly due to the shortage of military personnel, challenges in communication, mobilizing the equipment, and coordinating the new military forces. Although Russia has been quick in declaring votes and passing laws, as it did during the Crimean annexation, the cities (DPR, LPR, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia) included in the referendum, form a new eastern border of Russia outside Donbas. This can be seen as a geopolitical strategy to capture the Donbas and keep the zones in between as a buffer, substantiating its retreat.

Third, continuing the Russian veto. Thus far, the UNSC has attempted voting 20 times on this issue; however, it has not succeeded to pass any resolution against Russia. The recent draft resolution condemning the illegal referendums was vetoed by Russia again proving yet again the inability of UNSC mechanisms to resolve the conflict; the UNSC has only acted as a platform to take stock of countries that support (or do not support) Russia in the war. The US has therefore been compelled to lead the resolution at the UNGA, where a resolution can be adopted by a simple majority. This could demonstrate a stronger international positioning, but India and China have become the constant abstainers regardless of the nature of the resolution.

Four, public support for the referendum. The TASS, a Russian news agency, reported that there was more than 97 per cent support in favour of joining Russia in all regions in the recently held referendums. However, The New York Times said that people were forced to vote due to threats from the Russian forces. It alluded to the Crimean referendum where similar results were published in the TASS, and the UN found later that only 30 per cent had supported the annexation. Therefore, in the latest round of referendums, the internal dynamics or demographic composition of the public who voted in favour is unclear.

In perspective

First, an ambiguous ground situation. Ukrainian forces seem to be gaining ground in the east moving towards Donbas. The question remains if it can push back Russia and regain Donetsk and Luhansk. Russia, on the other hand, appears to be retreating from the cities mentioned in the referendums. With no clarity on the text of the referendum, or knowing the exact strategies of Russia, the purpose of the referendums on the ground appears to be ambiguous.

Second, Russia’s mobilization challenge. The withdrawal of troops from important regions which were under Russian control for months shows the emerging gaps in the Russian armed forces. With mobilization capacity reaching 200,000, including those that are still under training, can prove to be a grave scenario for Russia if the new troops fail to maintain the territories under Russian control. In such a case, Russia might have let go of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia completely and may still secure the DPR and LPR regions.

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