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 murder and mass deportation since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. With this statement, the Russian president is also declaring war. But this is not merely a war on Ukraine.
Putin’s war—Russia’s war—is also a war on a particular idea of world order and international law, an idea upheld not just by Europeans and North Americans, but by most of the rest of the world, indeed by the United Nations itself. One core principle of this world order is that larger countries should not be able to grab parts of smaller countries, that mass slaughter of whole populations is unacceptable, that borders have international significance and cannot be changed through violence or on one dictator’s whim. Putin already challenged this idea in 2014, when he annexed Crimea. At the time he also held a sham referendum, but he convinced many outsiders that it had some validity. Although some sanctions followed, the world largely gave him a pass. Commerce and diplomacy with Russia continued.
This time, Putin is no longer able even to pretend that the farcical votes he has staged in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson have any validity, and no one, anywhere, believes that they do. The simulation was played out: Armed men went house to house collecting so-called ballots, and some people, left destitute by the war, were bribed in exchange for showing up to vote. But in regions where hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens have been evacuated, deported, or murdered, where violent conflict continues and where an active resistance is raging, nothing remotely like an actual vote could ever have taken place. Even as Putin was speaking in Moscow, the Ukrainians announced that they were surrounding and cutting off a large group of Russian soldiers in Lyman, a strategically significant city in Donetsk province.
Russia’s actions under 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 matter, even when they are arbitrary. In the upside-down reality that Putin has created, he will now claim that Ukrainians, by defending their own land and their own people, are somehow attacking Russia. He will even raise the stakes, will try to frighten Ukraine and the West by calling Ukraine’s self-defense an existential threat to Russia that requires an extraordinary response—perhaps even a nuclear response, echoing a threat he has made repeatedly since he began his invasion.
This annexation is also more specifically a declaration of war against the democratic world, a statement of contempt for democracy itself. Putin has been treating democracy as a tool for decades, 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 some space for public opinion, while at the same time ensuring that he always remained in power. With today’s announcement, he no longer pretends or plays games. This deliberate farce mocks the very idea of referenda, of voting, of popular opinion. Nothing about this act has any legitimacy, and that is 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 any Russians whose vision of their country differs from his. Some of those Russians belong to ethnic minority groups—Dagestanis, Buryat, Tuvans, Crimean Tatars, all of whom have been subject to vigorous mobilization drives, as if Putin wants to use his genocidal war against Ukraine to eliminate them as well. Some simply want to live in a country governed by different rules, a country that does not have murderous designs on its neighbors, a country that is not a menace 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 have celebrated the departure of anti-war Russians as a form of cleansing; Putin himself has said that the nation should “spit them out like a midge that accidentally flew into their mouths.”
Since the war began, the crackdown at home has also accelerated, because the war provides the 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 have been 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 the closest to creating a grassroots, anti-Putin, prodemocracy movement, received a nine-year jail sentence in May and is now locked in a maximum-security prison. He has spent most of the past several weeks in an isolation cell, as punishment for tiny (or invented) infractions of jailhouse rules. Other inmates are forbidden to speak with him and even to look at him. But his anti-corruption foundation continues to function 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 criminal war that is going on is getting worse and deeper, and Putin is trying to involve as many people as possible in this. He wants to smear hundreds of thousands of people in this blood.”
Vladimir Kara-Murza, another opposition politician who has played an important role in campaigning for individual sanctions, is also in prison, where he remains equally defiant. “It continues to amaze me,” he told an interviewer via smuggled messages, “how many serious Western analysts buy the Kremlin’s propaganda on the ‘overwhelming popularity’ of Putin and of the war. If this were true, the authorities wouldn’t need to rig elections, muzzle the media, or imprison and murder their opponents. The Kremlin knows the real situation—and the only thing it has left in the toolbox to prevent protests in Russia is fear.”
Today’s annexation, along with the mobilization that has been launched to defend these occupied territories, has also been designed to increase that fear. The battle against independent thinkers is now expanding beyond Putin’s opponents and is reaching even Russians who felt too distant, too apathetic, or too afraid to protest in the past. 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 the war in Ukraine is now being used in exactly the same way against Putin’s subjects. The regime is now treating ordinary citizens exactly as if they were expendable prisoners, throwing untrained, poorly equipped men into the battlefield, where some are rumored to have already died. New draftees are being driven to empty fields with no shelter and no 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 matters more 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, in a prison interview published this week, said the same thing: “None of us knows exactly how and when the Putin regime will end—but we know that it will.”
And they are right. We don’t know how and when it will end. Nor do we know what kind of regime will follow. But there is nothing predestined about Putinism or his form of kleptocratic autocracy. There is nothing “forever” about the annexation of territories that aren’t even under full Russian control, and none of the people who were at the annexation ceremony today will live forever either. Russia’s sham annexation of Ukrainian land will end, whatever false words are spoken this week.