What a journey the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk have had recently. In February they were part of Ukraine, albeit contested by separatists backed by Moscow since 2014. Later that month Putin declared them autonomous republics and ordered Russian troops into the country to protect their sovereignty.
Now, according to one U.S. ambassador, residents there will soon be polled in an absurd referendum on whether to become part of Russia.
It took Texas nine years to go from Mexican territory to independent country to U.S. state. Through the miracle of Kremlin propaganda, the Donbas will make a similar transition in two and a half months.
If this sounds familiar it’s because for weeks now Russia has been planning the same thing in Kherson, the southern Ukrainian city occupied since the beginning of the war. The Kherson referendum would purport to establish that city as an independent state since it’s not contiguous with Russia. The Donbas is, so Moscow hopes to swallow it up.
The US has “highly credible” intelligence reports that Russia will try to annex the separatist-occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk “some time in mid-May,” and that there are plans to create a similarly so-called “people’s republic” in Kherson to be annexed as well, US Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said.
“The reports state that Russia has plans to engineer referenda on joining Russia some time in mid-May, and that Moscow is considering a similar plan for Kherson,” said Ambassador Michael Carpenter at a news briefing at the State Department.
Carpenter added that Russia is reportedly abducting local officials in towns they hold in eastern and southern Ukraine to replace with “groups that are loyal to Moscow,” and are also disappearing “school directors, journalists, local activists, municipal officials.”
Why do this?
One reason is to give Russian stooges abroad something to point at when trying to justify the war. It’s not a war of conquest, it’s a war of liberation to free people who have “chosen” democratically to join the Russian Federation. It’s the Ukrainians who are the aggressors, you see.
I wonder if another reason, though, is to create a pretext for Putin to resort to WMD if and when the time comes. Russian officials have said that they wouldn’t do that unless the country faces an existential threat. But if Luhansk and Donetsk were suddenly to become part of Russia (according to Moscow, at least) and the Ukrainians were to advance and threaten to retake that territory, they’d be guilty of having “invaded” Russia. Which, if you squint hard, could be half-heartedly spun as an “existential threat.”
Beyond that, as a matter of simple logistics, it may be a matter of “now or never” for Russia to try this stunt. If the reports are true of their offensive in the east stalling out, likely due to heavy losses having rendered too many units ineffective in combat, the Kremlin may be nervous about how long they can hold the Donbas — especially with western heavy weaponry joining the fight. A sham referendum will look like even more of a sham if locals are asked to vote in the middle of raging battles in the area. So they’re going to do it now, it seems. Then, if Russia’s grasp on the area begins to slip, Moscow can try to claim that Ukraine’s offensive contravenes the will of the people.
There’s big-picture thinking behind this move too, though. It’s best summed up by this short clip from the Ukrainian city of Nova Kakhovka.
That’s Lenin being installed in the square in front of the city council building. It’s of a piece with other moves by Russia around Ukraine recently to impose a sense of Russian identity on the locals:
A popular Ukrainian supermarket in the southern region of Zaporizhzhia announced a grand reopening Saturday under new – Russian – management. It is the latest sign of attempts by Moscow’s occupying forces to rub out Ukrainian identity in territories under its control.
Formerly, the shop in Melitopol was part of the ATB chain, a Dnipro-based business. But a leaflet posted on a local TV station’s Telegram channel boasts the supermarket is now part of the MERA chain, which is headquartered in St. Petersburg, Russia…
Elsewhere in the region, a large Ukrainian coat of arms has been removed from the front of the mayor’s office in the town of Tokmak. Photos circulating on social media show the distinctive Ukrainian symbol – a yellow trident on a blue background – propped up against the entrance of the building. An earlier photo on the same Telegram channel shows a man up a ladder apparently working to loosen the trident from its place.
For all the argle-bargle about NATO gamely offered in Putin’s defense by Russian simps, his ambitions in Ukraine have been remarkably clear. He believes Russians and Ukrainians are one people — namely, Russians. Ukraine isn’t a “real country.” So the trappings of Russian culture are being installed in occupied cities to remind Ukrainians which nation they really belong to. The so-called annexation of Luhansk and Donetsk is in keeping with that logic.
In particular, putting up statues of Lenin is a nod to Putin’s nostalgia for the Soviet empire, which of course included Ukraine. I wonder when the statues of Stalin start going up. Given his infamy in Ukrainian history as the architect of the Holodomor, that would be an especially pungent signal of Russia’s intentions to suppress Ukraine by any means necessary.
While statues of Soviet icons are being installed in some parts of the country, other statues are being torn down. I’ll leave you with this, which speaks for itself.
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