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View: Outcome of Russian referendum in Ukraine areas is a sure thing; question is of the next steps

There is little doubt that President Putin’s address on September 21 marks a new stage in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. It takes the conflict one step closer not just to war, but a potentially long drawn one. For the first time, Putin has spelt out his military objective so explicitly, ie the absorption of Russian-dominated regions of Lugansk, Donetsk, Zaporozhye and Kherson into the Russian Federation based on “referendums” to be conducted by them soon.

He made repeated references to a 1,000 km “line of contact” with Ukrainian forces that has been created by Russian forces surrounding these areas. He has also announced matching preparations for this, starting with partial mobilisation of reservists and ramping up of defence production to support the war effort.

For Putin, the conflict did not begin in February this year, but in 2014. Western military and technical support to Ukraine is having its impact, by Putin’s own admission. The speech is therefore aimed significantly more at the West than in the past, which formalises their role in the conflict. Putin shows scant respect for the current Ukrainian government. He has said that western military assets and hardware have reached the borders of Belgorod and Kursk.

The latter was the scene of the largest tank battle in history where the Soviet army defeated the Nazis and pushed them back. He has also held out the threat of use of all weapons, without specifically naming nuclear weapons, in the event of a threat to Russia’s “territorial integrity”.

The danger is that in a matter of days Russian territory will also, in the interpretation of Russia, include the Donbass and related areas. The outcome of the referendums is a foregone conclusion. The question is of the next steps. Will Russia thereafter unilaterally withdraw from the rest of Ukrainian soil, and focus on defending the newly-absorbed areas? Does the reference to the 1,000 km “line of contact” suggest a new notional border?

Secondly, will Russia offer to sit on the negotiating table thereafter? From the western point of view, the choices are much more difficult. They will not accept the Russian plan to take over Donbass and the other two areas. If this is the case, how far will they go to defend these regions militarily? What advice will they give Ukraine?

We will shortly be faced with the reality of contested sovereignties in Crimea and the Donbass and related areas in Ukraine. It is an unsettling moment in world affairs. The prospect of escalation looks real. Hyper nationalist media and commentators are aggravating tensions. We have to look at all and any hints of a readiness to return to the negotiating table, by any side. It is noteworthy that Putin made a reference to the Istanbul talks held in March 2022 in which he claims offers of a solution were made to the Ukrainian side.

Emotions are running high in Russia and in Ukraine. In the past, wars have happened because of miscalculations, misreading of intentions and a sense of victimhood among all sides. The ghost of 1991 has now come to haunt a new generation of humanity. The imperfections of the postSoviet periphery are playing out in their most acute form in Ukraine. In this space, territory, identity, kinship and security are intertwined. It speaks of the enduring nature of the civilisational divide in Europe and failure of the leadership on both sides that they have been unable to build upon the trust that marked the Reagan-Gorbachev era or find a way to manage differences.

There has been a complete absence of accommodating mutual security interests. The contrast with the understanding shown in some western circles about not provoking China beyond a point on Taiwan is more than striking. Major powers and powerful countries derive their authority not just from their military strength. They also derive it from their moral authority of safeguarding international peace and stability.

They also have the ability to maintain channels of communication and diffuse the most difficult crises. This is a time when the world is looking for such leadership. Unfortunately, there is little room for optimism for the vast majority of countries like India who, once again, are watching the unfolding events with a sense of helplessness, and an even higher degree of frustration and resentment.

It is difficult to see a clear victor and a vanquished in this conflict. India is among the handful of countries that has worthwhile ties with both the West and Russia, as well as significant personal equations at the leadership levels. These are an asset at a time when the premium is on maintaining sanity and balance.

The writer is India’s former envoy to Russia and deputy NSA

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