Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s victory in the Donbas referendums might be bad news for his successors, setting them up for “political suicide” if they want to undo Putin’s moves in Ukraine.
On Friday, Putin annexed four occupied Ukrainian territories—the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions—after an overwhelming majority of residents voted in referendums to join the Russian Federation. The referendums were dismissed by the international community as being illegitimate and the U.S. announced new sanctions after Putin formally recognized the vote.
Yuri Zhukov, an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan, told Newsweek that the latest development in Ukraine not only raises the stakes for the Russian president, but also the stakes for any leader looking to replace Putin.
“Putin is burning the bridges behind him, and committing to a course of action from which there is no return,” Zhukov said. Putin’s also tying the hands of any future Russian leader “since giving up these territories will potentially be political suicide.”
In 2020, Russia amended its constitution to forbid ceding territory the country has formally annexed, making it unconstitutional for Putin or any of his successors in the Kremlin to give up ground to a foreign power without changing it first.
Repairing relations between Russia and Ukraine and its allies may require the liberation of the annexed regions. However, Zhukov said the Russian public is unlikely to support giving up the territories.
Putin has faced protests in Russia over his war and his announcement of a partial mobilization prompted a new wave of demonstrations. But, now that 300,000 citizens have been mobilized, Zhukov said families of soldiers have essentially become “stakeholders” in Putin’s plans to expand the Russian Federation.
After sacrificing for the annexation, a future president giving up the territories could be seen as betraying the Russian public, effectively making territorial concessions a “kamikaze mission.”
In a Friday address officially annexing the regions, Putin signaled to Kyiv that Moscow has no plans to back down from its invasion of Ukraine and will continue the fight for as long as necessary.
“I want the Kyiv authorities and their real masters in the West to hear me so that they remember this,” the Russian president said. “People living in Luhansk and Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are becoming our citizens. Forever.”
Now that Putin has made clear that he has every intention to defend those four territories as if they were proper Russia, any president succeeding Putin would also be “duty-bound” to follow through with Putin’s promise of defense, even if the regions are militarily contested, Zhukov said.
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