Since it was announced that a referendum will be held in the territories Russia has seized from Ukraine, a lot of discussion and analysis is being focused on the immediate and tactical repercussions of what will follow.
Not much attention is paid to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long game of deciding to officially annex parts of Ukrainian territory.
One of the reasons for focusing on the immediate ramifications is that it creates bad PR for Russia.
Discussing the long-term consequences forces them to look at some uncomfortable, but realistic questions and scenarios.
Even detractors of Putin admit that a significant portion of the Russian population either supports the war in Ukraine or accept their government’s narrative on the causes of the war.
Some western scholars even argue that Putin has majority backing on his stance in Ukraine.
By now it is clear that no mass scale internal revolt will unseat Putin from power.
Even less likely is the case that he will be replaced by a pro-western clique.
True, it can be debated whether Putin will last for more than a few years, but it is very unlikely that he will be replaced by a political force which will simply withdraw from Ukraine and accept western terms for the post-war situation.
Many in the mainstream western media are also alluding to this reality now.
As NATO regimes continue to emphasize the military leverages they have against Russia, the narrative of the government in Moscow is beginning to sound more credible to many Russians.
The factor of rallying behind the flag is also showing results in Russia.
It is naïve to assume that Putin will be spooked by demonstrations in urban Russia and, therefore, resign.
Neither is it realistic to expect that an opposition force will be able to organize itself into a mass movement and topple the existing system via protests.
The Russian government can easily mobilize millions of its supporters for counter-protests.
No doubt this will create internal frictions but it will prevent the government from being overthrown because appealing to people’s sense of patriotism carries much greater weight.
What is more realistic to expect is that a certain group within the current ruling system may step up and replace the current one.
Whatever the scenario, it will be very difficult for any future government to simply give away chunks of territory Russia has seized in Ukraine.
This will create bad optics for the new government.
At the societal level, it will revive the terrible memories of the early 1990s and put the government in Moscow under severe pressure.
Thousands of Russians have already died in the war.
Any government in Moscow which simply ignores their deaths by surrendering territory will provide ammunition to its internal opponents to delegitimize them as sellouts.
By launching the old-style land grab policy into motion and legitimizing Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory, Putin’s move ties the hands of all future governments.
To understand it in somewhat analogical terms, let us look at the US-Cuban contention over Guantanamo Bay.
While Havana insists that Guantanamo Bay is Cuban territory unjustly usurped by the US, it is difficult to imagine that a future US president, even someone as liberal as Bernie Sanders, will simply return the illegally occupied island to Cuba.
Thus, even if Putin’s group is removed from power, the west, mainly the US, will have to sit down and negotiate a face-saving solution for whoever will reside in the Kremlin in the future.
The referendum is likely to result in large parts of Ukraine being annexed by Russia.
It is essentially a political landmine for anyone who will dare try and oust Putin from power.