KYIV, Ukraine — Even by his own fire-and-brimstone standards, Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed angry on Friday as he addressed hundreds of Russian parliamentarians and governors in St. George Hall in the Kremlin.
The event had been called so that Putin could triumphantly announce his latest gambit in Ukraine, the annexation of four regions of that country into the Russian Federation. But as he rattled off a litany of reasons as to why this land grab was necessary, the mood was more apocalyptic than jubilant.
The rules-based international order was a sinister Western design, he told his audience, one that was rooted in Russophobia. The West itself has “embraced Satanism,” forced drug addiction, gender ambiguity and “the organized hunts of people as if they’re animals” — the latter either a strange reference to American mass shootings or the popularity of Netflix’s “Squid Game.” Nevertheless, such a fallen civilization still had the wherewithal to try and colonize Russia and steal its precious natural resources, he continued before comparing the United States to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, accusing it of setting a “precedent” in being the only nation to use nuclear weapons. Then he quoted from his favorite Russian fascist philosopher, Ivan Ilyin: “I believe in the spiritual forces of the Russian people, their spirit — my spirit, its fate is my fate, its suffering is my grief, its flowering is my joy.”
A crowd in Red Square had gathered to watch the widely anticipated news broadcast on a Jumbotron, wave the Russian tricolor and herald the invasion as a new “holy war.” “We won’t care about the price,” they chanted in a tacit admission that the war in Ukraine was, in fact, costing Russia a great deal.
“Make no mistake,” President Biden said in a White House statement released Friday, “these actions have no legitimacy. The United States will always honor Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders.”
Following Putin’s theatrics, Ukraine announced it was applying for fast-track membership to NATO — exactly the contingency the Russian government has for years claimed it sought to avoid. However symbolic this declaration is (Ukraine’s accession is still a distant prospect), it deftly stole the international spotlight away from Putin.
Given his years as a comedic actor, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky no doubt understands that timing is everything. He previously undercut Putin’s recent declaration of a “partial mobilization” of 300,000 reservists (in fact, many more Russians have been called up, including non-reservists) with his own announcement that 215 Ukrainian fighters who had courageously held out for months at the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol had been released in a prisoner swap. In Ukraine, those soldiers have been venerated as national heroes for their Alamo-like defense of the factory.
The “price” for that trade was, as far as has been made public, a mere handful of Russian prisoners of war and Viktor Medvedchuk, a disgraced Ukrainian oligarch long rumored to be a bagman or “wallet” for Putin’s stolen billions. (Putin is godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter, Daria.) Russian ultranationalists were outraged, characterizing the swap of such high-value enemies for a Medvedchuk as treasonous; they had demanded a public show trial and state execution of all the Azovstal holdouts.
Putin’s attempts to consolidate minimal Russian gains stand in marked contrast to the fact that his war of conquest is faltering, something even he subtly recognizes. Following his decree to gobble up four of Ukraine’s oblasts, he immediately suggested a “ceasefire” with Kyiv, which for weeks has been pressing the fight to the invaders.
Ukraine has continued its incredibly successful Kharkiv offensive by pushing across the Oskil River in an attempt to liberate the entirety of the oblast. Social media accounts have been overflowing with videos and pictures showing jubilant Ukrainian soldiers hoisting their flag’s blue-and-gold colors over recently liberated settlements. On Thursday, Ukrainian forces were said to have encircled the strategic city of Lyman in Donetsk, one of the oblasts Putin thinks is now going to be part of Russia. A few thousand Russian forces there have been cut off from the north, west and south, with only a narrow means of escaping eastward from advancing Ukrainian columns, according to pro-Russian military bloggers, whose pessimistic assessments are always more fact-based than anything emanating from the Russian Ministry of Defense. There are further indications that Lyman may be completely surrounded by Ukrainian forces.
For the Ukrainians, taking Lyman would not only secure the northern approach to the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, both also in Kyiv’s hands, but it would also enable them to push toward retaking Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, the twin cities Russia captured in June after months of grueling attritional warfare.
Recapturing Lyman would also allow the Ukrainians to potentially outflank the Russian soldiers who have been attempting to sack the city of Bakhmut for several weeks. The U.S.- and EU-sanctioned Igor Girkin, a former FSB officer implicated in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014, has been complaining loudly to anyone who will listen that Russian forces near Bakhmut are in danger of being outflanked by the most recent Ukrainian advances. “If the enemy manages to take Lyman, if the enemy manages to reach Svatove, then even if in the meantime our forces take Bakhmut, this will have no benefit for our forces.”
Pro-Russian observers have long been warning of the risk to Lyman, which the Russian army is seemingly determined to hold even though it's in their strategic interest to withdraw, given the outsize cost of trying to hold it. Many analysts have speculated that Putin has given his own version of Stalin’s “not one step back” order, forcing the Russian army to defend an increasingly untenable position for political reasons against all strategic sense. If and when the Ukrainian army takes Lyman, it will likely capture a significant number of Russian POWs and another treasure trove of abandoned Russian war matériel, a welcome boon to the Ukrainian war effort, and a virtual repeat of scenes earlier in the Kharkiv offensive when the Ukrainian military overran Izium.
As the situation on the ground currently stands, Kyiv has a better chance of eventually acceding to NATO than Putin has of ever getting his forcible seizure of sovereign soil, the largest since World War II, legitimized even by many of his allies, who have bridled at Russian losses in recent weeks and demonstrably distanced themselves from him. These include China and the Central Asian republics. When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently met with his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister praised Wang’s reaffirmation of China’s “respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Kazakhstan, a once stalwart ally of Russia, has absorbed thousands of Russians fleeing Putin’s disastrously implemented “partial mobilization” and affirmed its willingness to grant them asylum.
Nor is anyone much fooled by Russia’s transparently rigged plebiscites for “independence” in the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, all conducted at gunpoint, in territories largely depopulated by war. In a nod to Soviet-era totalitarianism, the voting “results” saw nearly 100% of all participants choosing to join Russia, while numerous figures not eligible to vote even under Moscow’s shambolic rules, including pro-Russian foreign fighters and Russian journalists, were also videotaped casting ballots. The Russian annexation plans were especially farcical in Zaporizhzhia, considering that Ukrainian forces currently control the regional capital there.
One senior Ukrainian military intelligence officer told Yahoo News that Putin’s stage-managed “Anschluss” changes nothing. “We have had Crimea occupied since 2014, but this fact has not altered our strategy,” the officer said. “We are fighting for our existence, for our victory over the enemy regardless of whether or not they call occupied territories Russia or Timbuktu.”
Whatever imaginary lines Vladimir Putin may draw on a map of Ukraine, the official said, the force of Ukrainian arms will decide the outcome of this war. And Washington is signaling that, if anything, it is only investing more in Ukraine’s longevity and cohesion as an independent state.
On Wednesday the U.S. announced a new $1.1 billion aid package for Ukraine, which includes the delivery of 18 new High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) to be delivered over the course of the next two years. Apart from the material difference these platforms have made and will continue to make on the battlefield, the Pentagon would not be sending more of them if it thought they were in imminent danger of being captured or destroyed by the Russian occupiers.
“Russia’s propaganda stunts in Ukraine do not change U.S. policy one iota,” said a senior U.S. diplomat. “The provision of additional U.S. security assistance, not just now but for the foreseeable future, is a powerful message that the U.S. will continue to stand with Ukraine.”