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Putin’s Annexation: Echoes of Manchukuo?

An explosion sparked a massive fire on Russia’s bridge to the annexed Crimean peninsula early Saturday and brought part of the 12-mile link crashing into the sea. The blast on the Crimean Bridge, a prized project for Russian President Vladimir Putin, threatens a vital supply route for Russian forces in southern Ukraine.

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Vladimir Putin has annexed four provinces (Oblasts) of Ukraine. So what? What’s all the hullabaloo about? After all, history has seen numerous annexations and changes of borders. What is so special about the Russian annexation? Well, it’s the implications of this annexation that make it very special and significant.

Unlike the annexation of South Vietnam by North Vietnam in 1975 (by which time the “domino theory” which was the basis of Vietnam’s strategic importance for the USA had been conclusively voided) or the annexation of Kuwait by Iraq (which was reversed decisively in a matter of months by the USA and allies), the Russian annexation is poised to create significant ripples of global importance for many years or even decades to come. Years from now, students of the third world war might study this annexation as the students of World War 1 study the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by Germany, or as the students of World War 2 study the Japanese “annexation” of Manchuria.

Read more: Kyiv under attack after Putin accusations

So, let’s ponder over the implications of this annexation

Let’s begin with the more localized implications of this decision. Owing to the abysmal performance of the Russian Military, Vladimir Putin has modified his aims significantly. The dreams of storming Kyiv and ending the war quickly now lie in tatters. Even the capture of Eastern Ukraine with the important cities of Kharkiv and Odesa, and the establishment of a direct land link with the Russian-held Moldavian region of Transnistria seems beyond the reach of the Russian military might.

Through announcing these annexations, Putin has also signaled that he will declare a “victory” and wind up this round of fighting in Eastern Ukraine if he secures the four annexed regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. It also means that Russia now can’t stop until it has control of these four regions for now they belong to the “sovereign territory of Russia”. So, the war will go on at least until the time Russia secures the “border” marked by these annexations.

Putin has also issued nuclear threats if “Russian” territory is imperiled. The annexation was also meant to enable Putin to scare the West into backing off of its extraordinary support of Ukraine by using nuclear blackmail. Admittedly, this ploy doesn’t seem to promise much success as if Putin actually uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine, he will inevitably invite massive Western retaliation which might wipe off the hapless Russian forces in Ukraine and the Black sea. On the other hand, if he doesn’t use them despite battlefield failures, he will only appear as weak and irresolute not only abroad but also to his followers like Ramzan Kadyrov.

If Putin does manage to capture these four regions, which is not an unlikely scenario given the power disparity between Ukraine and Russia (after all Russia did manage to gain territory at Finland’s expense despite experiencing humiliating defeats for some months during the Winter war of 1939-40), he will also cement his domestic position greatly. Removal of Putin from power through political or non-violent means by the Russian opposition will then become impossible. Any Russian politicians who want Western support to topple Putin would have to agree to cede these regions back to Ukraine. This step would be considered treason by many in Russia, and as a result, the pro-Putin segment of Russian society will become more solidified behind their leader.

Only a revolution, like the one in 1917, will now enable the opposition to remove Putin and his clique from power. And even in the improbable event of their success, given the present gulf between the two sides, such a revolution will assuredly give birth to a bloody civil war in Russia. Such an eventuality may sound mouth-watering to the Ukrainians and the Americans, but it will be a death knell for the Russians. So, many fence-sitters in Russia will now prefer Putin over the opposition as the latter would only bring national humiliation, encroachment on Russian territory, economic collapse, and a fratricidal war.

Read more: Kim Jong-un praises president Putin for challenging US threats

Now, let’s turn our attention to the other side of the hill as well

As long as Putin occupies the four “annexed” regions of Ukraine, Ukraine will not accept any ceasefire. It may happen that the Russians may fortify their position along the new borders and the Ukrainians may find those positions unassailable. But even in this case, a “phony war” will continue with a lull in active fighting in the absence of any treaty or armistice. Ukrainians will continue receiving arms from the US and the West and will try from time to time to puncture the Russian lines.

The USA will particularly be very much interested and invested in keeping the pot boiling. Putin might have given up on utterly defeating Ukraine, but Ukraine and its Western backers have no intention of letting Putin off the hook. Thus, the war might turn inactive for some time following Putin’s enforcement of the annexation, it is crystal clear that it will continue and periodic flare-ups and escalations will continue occurring from time to time. In all probability, the current Russo-Ukrainian war will follow the pattern of the Sino-Japanese conflict which began with the Japanese seizure of Manchuria and continued until Japan’s final defeat in World War 2 fourteen years later. That war also followed a pattern of alternate active phases, and phases of “phony war”/ practical ceasefires.

Like the Sino-Japanese conflict of the 1930s, the current Russo-Ukrainian Conflict will serve to destabilize the world and hasten the march toward a destructive world war. History makes it clear that global conflicts are preceded by periods in which economic delinking, the establishment of blocs, and large-scale rearmament of many countries take place. All three factors will receive a huge boost from the continuity of this war (which is all but guaranteed after Putin’s annexations). Russia might have failed miserably so far on the Ukrainian battlefields but it has succeeded remarkably on the economic front. The Western sanctions have utterly failed to dent the Russian economy.

The Russian currency is performing very well, and the standards of living, exports, and macroeconomic stability haven’t been damaged at all. If anything, Russia seems to be demonstrating to the whole world how to survive in face of the Western economic boycott. Iran has shown this resilience on a much smaller scale in the past but Russians have taken this game to a whole new level. The formation of supply chains, banking channels, cyberspace, etc which are completely segregated and secured from the Western world is progressing steadily. Russia’s “no limits” partnership with emerging global giant China will enable the Russians to achieve success in successfully delinking from the West, and at the same time, China itself will be encouraged to tread the path of delinking from the West with greater experience and confidence.

Russia and China’s economic delinking from the West will inevitably give rise to two separate “rules-based world orders” with different rules, preferences, incentives, markets, and regulatory bodies for both competing sides. Many regional powers and small countries will be forced to choose between the competing economic blocs. As always, Geo-politics will trump Geo-economics. The choice will be made based on geography, comparative advantage, cultural affinities, national security, and the tendency to mirror the choices of arch-rivals.

Read more: Putin’s nuclear warning biggest risk since Cuban missile crisis: Biden

Thus, within a few years, the world will be divided into two competing and largely segregated blocs. This situation, reminiscent of the cold war, will also encourage arms build-up in both blocs. Already the Russo-Ukrainian war has resulted in noticeable increases in European military spending. With the completion of the deadly trio of economic delinking, bloc formation, and a global arms race, the world will be brought to the brink of a very destructive global war.

The writer is a doctor and an avid reader of history. His columns have been published in the Urdu daily “Nawa-e-Waqt” and “Global Village Space”. He also runs a social media channel “Tarikh aur Tajziya” which is dedicated to the study of history and current affairs. Currently, he heads the India Desk at South Asia Times, Islamabad.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.