As Vladimir Putin announced Russia’s permanent ownership of occupied Ukrainian regions at a ceremony in Moscow, Russia’s control of those territories was slipping away on the ground.
The president’s gambit was intended to mimic a similar announcement after the capture of Crimea in 2014, which was hugely popular with the Russian public and sparked celebrations across the country. Public festivities were staged this time too, but with far less to celebrate.
Ukrainian troops are flooding through porous Russian defences in the north of the country. After the successful counteroffensive around Kharkiv earlier this month, Ukraine’s forces are close to an encirclement of the strategic city of Lyman that could lead to further gains in the region of Donetsk, even as it is claimed to be an eternal subject of Russia.
“If emergency measures are not taken in the near future … then the city together with its defenders will fall and nothing will stop Ukrainian formations from developing an offensive deep into Russian territories,” posted Russia’s leading military Telegram channel Rybar on Friday.
Ukrainian soldiers have been pictured in villages around Lyman, with reports suggesting that Russian troops have just a single, narrow escape route remaining. Russian TV pundits speculated that Ukraine’s advance was intended to undermine Mr Putin’s announcement. Ukrainian analysts suggested that Russian commanders were sacrificing their soldiers by refusing to order a retreat to avoid embarrassing Mr Putin.
Russia’s military defeats in recent weeks have prompted a mobilisation the Kremlin has long sought to avoid, with thousands of civilians heading to the front lines. The reaction has emphasised the reason for the authorities’ reluctance to take this step, with public protests across the country that have turned violent in some cases.
A new poll from the Levada Centre in Moscow gave an indication of the shifting public mood. More than half of respondents said they were “very concerned” by the situation Ukraine – up from 37 per cent last month. The most common feelings associated with the war were “anxiety, fear, horror”. Mr Putin moved to address discontent by acknowledging “mistakes” in the draft.
Former Kremlin speechwriter-turned-political analyst Abbas Gallyamov summed up the disconnect between Mr Putin’s assessment and the ground reality.
“It looks quite pathetic. Ukrainians are doing something, taking steps in the real material world, while the Kremlin is building some kind of a virtual reality, incapable of responding in the real world,” he told AP.
“People understand that the politics is now on the battlefield,” he added. “What’s important is who advances and who retreats. In that sense, the Kremlin cannot offer anything comforting to the Russians.”
While the annexation of around 20 per cent of Ukraine has been derided as a desperate and farcical measure, there may be method to Mr Putin’s apparent madness. By declaring the occupied regions to be part of Russia that will be defended with the same determination as Moscow, up to and including the use of nuclear weapons, Mr Putin is raising the stakes and testing the resolve of Ukraine’s supporters.
The Kremlin has bet on outlasting the West and will hope that unity behind Ukraine crumbles in the face of potentially devastating escalation. Mr Putin may have further muddied the waters by hinting at a ceasefire on the borders of the occupied regions, which could have some appeal in the battered economies of Europe.
But the US is signaling its long-term commitment with a new military aid package that extends over several years, and Ukraine is not blinking in the face of threats and mind games. President Volodymyr Zelensky introduced his own escalatory step in response to the so-called annexations with a call for regime change in Russia. “We are ready for dialogue with Russia, but with another Russian president,” he declared.