Like the course of the war itself, Russia’s ability to garner and maintain international support has fluctuated considerably over the past 7-8 months.
Initially, as with all of Russia’s shocking acts in the last two decades, such as other invasions, assassinations, domestic human rights abuses, there was global revulsion and this was reflected in the first United Nations (UN) resolution vote in which 141 countries came out against Russia with 35 abstentions and only five against.
But within weeks another UN vote on the slightly different issue of Russia’s continued membership of the UN Human Rights Council, the ratio was down to 93-58-24.
As Russia temporarily reclaimed the initiative over the summer after its early retreat from Kyiv, Moscow’s notional allies – not least Turkey, India, and China – seemingly stood firm.
But with the war dragging on, Ukraine’s remarkable gains of the past month, and evident Russian desperation, Moscow has received the cold shoulder from all three – with Turkey at one point even going so far as to suggest Crimea should be returned to Ukraine.
This is explained by war being bad for business and that nobody wants to be hitched to the losing party – especially one making nuclear threats. Admittedly these countries are fickle, so some support may return although it would be rhetorical at best, not material.
This war prises open fissures which already existed in Russia’s foreign policy and its relationship with Turkey and China will collapse – in slow motion – under the weight of their contradictions. Everyone can see that territorial aggrandisement at your neighbour’s expense is effectively empowering separatism.
Russia’s moves should be seen as a continued wave of annexation of neighbours’ territory. Russia’s level of control varies from Abkhazia to Transnistria, to Crimea and Belarus – but this is all part of a pattern to enlarge Russia at the expense of others.
Vladimir Putin is on an imperial mission to restore control over what he believes is ‘historic Russia’. Each time his regime senses weakness, it emboldens aggression.
New temporary territorial acquisitions in the south-east of Ukraine followed brutal occupational force of the Russian army and law enforcement. It included deportations, filtration camps, forced issuance of Russian passports, targeted killing, torture, and total suppression of freedom of speech.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has recently concluded Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine. Such horrific violations of the basic rights of civilian populations in the occupied territories will only consolidate the determination of Ukrainian society to liberate its territory, bring justice, and restore peace.
Survey data shows that currently only around seven per cent of the civilian population in Ukraine say they would accept the restoration of the status quo from 23 February as the only outcome of this war.
The world should not lose the sight of the forest for the trees. This is not just a war for territory, Putin wants to compel the West and countries in the post-Soviet region to accept limited sovereignty, to push the US presence out of eastern Europe, to strengthen his own autocratic kleptocracy, and to preserve power.
Putin wants acceptance for his worldview that large – and nuclear – powers do what they want and smaller nations just fall into line.
The intent of the annexations is simple – to change the rules of the war and reverse the course of it, and Ukraine’s Kharkiv offensive has made this urgent.
As Russian ‘constituent republics’ and oblasts (regions) these territories are now subject to provisions of Russian military doctrine that justify nuclear use.
Over Ukraine, this fraudulent legalism will have no effect at all. But the Kremlin’s eyes are set on the US which has repeatedly advertised its determination to ‘avoid World War Three’. US secretary of state Antony Blinken’s statement that the annexations pose no constraints on Ukraine’s military operations will disappoint the Kremlin.
But annexations are only one means of restoring Russia’s initiative. The second is the ‘partial mobilization’ of 21 September. Ostensibly designed to repair gaps in the line with veterans and experienced specialists, in practice it is further exposing the debilities of a disintegrating military system.
The pertinent question is not whether the mobilization will change the war in Ukraine but how it will affect the equilibrium of Russia. Since the decree, the number of eligible males fleeing the country has surpassed the number of Russian troops initially deployed to Ukraine after 24 February.
Finally, the Nord Stream pipeline explosions are a yet more sinister way of turning the tables on Russia’s adversaries. If Russia is culpable – as the swift and robust responses of NATO and the EU suggest – they are a reminder Russia is willing to damage itself in order to cripple its adversaries.
The explosions warn of further attacks on critical international infrastructure, and are as clear an indication as any that for the Kremlin, there is no going back.
The results of these referendums are unlikely to impact Vladimir Putin’s domestic control or sway the narrative of the war being fed to the Russian people.
After Putin’s partial-mobilization announcement, the flight from complicity is in full swing. According to a Levada Center poll conducted between 22-28 September, domestic support for Putin fell noticeably although not dramatically by ten per cent.