From the Editors

As Russia annexes eastern Ukraine, this is no time for appeasement

Fresh calls for peace on Moscow’s terms are likely to follow Russia’s annexation of four counties in the east of Ukraine. They should be ignored.

Just days before the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, he formally recognised the “independence” of two Ukrainian counties, Donetsk and Luhansk, both of which Russia had partially occupied since 2014. 

Early on September 30, he repeated the charade, recognising two more Ukrainian regions, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, as “independent”. 

Following a pattern first set in Crimea in 2014, all four will be annexed by Russia over the course of the next few days. First, Putin will sign a decree making the counties part of Russia, although formal annexation must wait for the approval of the Russian parliament; not that there is any doubt over which way the rubber stamp legislature will vote. 

Nor was there much doubt over the outcome of the hastily arranged, sham “referenda” which took place in each of the four counties last weekend, in which “voters” overwhelmingly “chose” to join Russia. Two of the counties declared 98 per cent support for becoming part of Russia, the two others a mere 97 per cent. 

According to Irina Sovsun, a Ukrainian MP, turnout in the sham “referenda” was in fact pitiful in two of the four counties. In Zaporizhzhia, which had a pre-war population of around 1.7 million, 38,000 people “voted”. In Kherson (pre-war population one million) just 32,000 ballots were cast. 

In Luhansk however, the “turnout” that the occupying Russian administration announced was larger than current population of the region.  

“We can’t believe any of the numbers the Russians have given as to the ‘turnout’ or the ‘results’ of these pseudo-referenda,” she says. 

Ironically, the referenda were illegal under Russian law, which stipulates that any referendum should be held no earlier than 60 days and no later than 100 days after the date of its official announcement. The “referenda” in Ukraine were announced just days before they took place, with no time for anything that resembled campaigning. 

Vanessa Beeley, a British journalist who was in Donbas as an “independent observer” has attempted to explain this apparent violation of Russia’s own rules: Russia did not organise the “referenda”, “the people of Donbas” did, as if “the people of Donbas” have any agency other than carrying out Russia’s bidding.

It has been far more difficult for Russia to convince the international community that its “referenda” and subsequent annexation of the Ukrainian provinces were anything other than fraudulent and illegal. 

The United States has rejected what it calls the “illegitimate, fabricated outcomes” of Russia’s sham “referenda” in Ukraine.  

“This is a violation of international law. We stand in support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken. 

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas meanwhile, who has been one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies, said that, “this annexation, land grab, theft, will never be recognised,” adding, “nothing Russia does changes Ukraine’s right to restore its territorial integrity. We must increase support, including military aid.”

The secretary general of the United Nations, António Guterres, has warned Russia that annexing Ukrainian regions would mark a “dangerous escalation” that would jeopardise the prospects for peace in the region. 

“Any decision to proceed with the annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine would have no legal value and deserves to be condemned,” he said. 

Dangerous assumptions

But calls for peace are precisely what we are likely to see in the coming days and weeks. Former US President Donald Trump is already offering to negotiate a deal with Putin to avoid further escalation, while an editorial in the Washington Post earlier this week offers a further glimpse at what we should expect. 

“There are good reasons to seek the earliest possible way out of this fiasco,” wrote David von Drehle, a Post columnist. 

“If Putin accepted a cease-fire after annexation, Ukraine would not lose much, in terms of territory, compared with preinvasion conditions. Perhaps some proceeds from Russia’s restarted fuel exports can be directed toward rebuilding Ukraine.” 

This makes two dangerous assumptions. 

Firstly, that Putin would be satisified with the annexed territory, and secondly, that fuel exports (and presumably other Russian exports) could resume, with sanctions lifted the moment a ceasefire is agreed. 

This is peace on Russia’s terms, which should be unacceptable to anyone who respects the rule of law. The only acceptable peace would see Russia immediately withdraw all of its forces to within its internationally recognised borders. It would hand over all suspected war criminals, and it would agree to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine in perpetuity. 

It would also agree to make reparation payments to support the cost of Ukraine’s reconstruction.  

Once peace has been restored, economic sanctions against Russia would then remain in place for a probation period of perhaps five years, after which they could gradually begin to be lifted as and when milestones of de-militarisation, democracy and the respect for human rights are reached.  

These would include the release of all political prisoners, as well as free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections in Russia overseen by genuinely independent international observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). 

Ukraine unmoved

Fortunately, both Ukraine itself and its key allies currently appear unmoved, despite Putin’s threats to escalate the war and use nuclear weapons. 

“As for the risk of Russia using these votes and subsequent annexation of those territories as a pretext for nuclear strikes — we are conscious of this risk, we understand that it is real,” Yuriy Sak, an advisor to Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov, told CNBC on Wednesday. 

“Even if Russia’s leader is himself crazy enough to contemplate or even consider conducting a nuclear strike on Ukrainian territory, hopefully not all those people who surround him are that crazy. But again, this is not something we can count on so we, as Ukraine, have to be prepared for the worse and the international community has to be prepared not to budge, not to cave to this nuclear blackmail.”

Meanwhile, Ukrainians who remain in Russian occupied territory have been voting with their feet, attempting to flee ahead of its annexation. But in a new outrage that should only serve to strengthen the international community’s resolve, at least 23 people were killed on the morning og September 30 near the city of Zaporizhzhia when Russia shelled a civilian convoy of cars heading to pick up relatives from Russian occupied territory. 

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