The annexation of four Ukrainian regions to Russia
The nuclear threat has become an ominous reality in the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine. It is sufficient to scan the news to see how the situation in the warzone is becoming more difficult day by day. The events of recent times have further precipitated the crisis, which was already significant in the latter part of the summer, after the Ukrainian forces, actively supported by the West, went on the offensive, freeing portions of territory previously invaded or occupied by Moscow. The declarations of President Putin’s entourage, which make explicit (and no longer veiled) reference to the use of tactical nuclear weapons in order to defend the threatened national territory, have made the current conflict take a real quantum leap forward, unlike anything since the beginning of the war. Let us look at the facts.
The Ukrainian forces, using the powerful HIMARS rockets sent by the USA, liberated extensive territories at the beginning of September, including territory where Russian administrations had already been imposed. In just a few days they managed to regain part of what Russia had occupied in five months of bloody conflict. This created discontent both in the ranks of the Russian army – both among the generals and the soldiers as seen in the letters they have been sending home – and in public opinion, increasingly alarmed by the disastrous course of the war, which Putin has continued to define as a “special operation” against pro-Nazi rebels.
It is in this context that the Russian president, advised by his hawks and after having once again purged many commanders and generals, whom he declared traitors and incompetent, has taken two extreme decisions with the intention of gaining ground or, as some analysts claim, avoiding the worst outcome. First he organized referenda in the provinces occupied (sometimes only in part) by the Russian army, and then he ordered a “partial” mobilization of about 300,000 reservists, thus “bringing the war in through the front door,” or rather, as they used to say, “taking the country to war.” The war, in fact, on the Russian side had so far been fought mainly by soldiers from the most distant regions of the country – such as Buryatia and Dagestan – and by private forces hired for this purpose, such as the Wagner Legion and others.
From September 23-27 “fake” referenda were held in the occupied Ukrainian provinces of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia (where Europe’s largest – now inactive – nuclear power plant is located), Donetsk and Luhansk, asking locals whether they wanted their land to be annexed to Russia. According to figures released by the Russians, between 87 percent and 99 percent of these regions voted in favor of annexation. According to the reports of witnesses, Russian officials went to collect votes house by house, accompanied by armed soldiers. They voted – without the presence of international observers – wherever they could: on benches in public parks, in police stations and even in shops. The international community, at first, spoke out against the legitimacy of such referenda and against possible territorial annexations and, then, as expected, did not recognize the validity of such operations, considered a bluff.
On September 30, in a solemn celebration in Moscow’s Red Square, Putin proclaimed to the crowd the annexation of these territories to Mother Russia, calling them “Russian forever,” and stating that he was willing to defend them by any means from possible external attacks. This position is in line with the general Russian doctrine on the defense of national territory. However, such annexations, as said, are not recognized by any other state. On the contrary, they are openly considered illegitimate and as an impediment to possible negotiations between the parties and to peace.
The mobilization had two objectives: to strengthen the now tired and challenged Russian army, which is struggling to maintain a 1,000 km front, and to strengthen patriotic sentiment, bringing Russia on to a war footing.
However, people – especially young people – have contested Putin’s decision and in many parts of the country there have been demonstrations – promptly repressed – against the war. These young people, born in the post-Soviet era, have never known a real war; they have never gone to fight on a battlefield. They love their own well-being, like young Westerners, and would like peace. Unlike their parents, they are indifferent to the myth of national power and glory. Putin will eventually be unable to ignore them. In fact, in recent weeks more than 300,000 young people – called “traitors” by the government – have left Russia and fled to neighboring countries (Finland, Kazakhstan and elsewhere), and many more, despite government restrictions, would like to do so as soon as possible.
The “cosmetic” aspect of the “special military operation” was also meant not to alarm the Russians and to keep the consensus in support of the government high, which was partly successful. Now, on the contrary, everyone feels the ghost of war hovering over their homes. A considerable number of soldiers are being killed on the plains of Ukraine. As has been written, engineers, doctors and computer scientists are fleeing, a brain drain that will do great harm to the economy and development of Russia. The most reliable recent polls tell us that support for Putin has fallen below 60 percent, which had never happened before.
According to The Economist, by these decisions Putin has revealed his weakness not only in front of the world, but also in front of the public opinion of his country, which up to now he wanted to keep somehow immune to the facts of the war. Now, “by annexing territories over which he does not have full control, he risks undermining the territorial integrity of Russia. Russia could become a country with fluid and internationally unrecognized borders. If Putin declares the annexation of the entire Donbass, he will in effect be saying that parts of Russia are occupied by Ukrainian troops, and he will look weak if he cannot drive them out, which he probably cannot do.” This is especially the case as the Ukrainian advance continues: the town of Lyman has been liberated and more recently the port-city of Kherson. Kyiv’s forces have also advanced into Luhansk and Donetsk provinces. By this policy Putin has got himself into a quagmire that is very difficult to get out of and that could lead him to take extreme decisions.
The great powers against annexations and the nuclear threat
Some great powers that at first were somewhat friendly to Russia and had refrained from condemning the war in Ukraine at the UN immediately after the invasion, such as China and India, have condemned Putin’s words on annexations. China, as early as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand on September 15, had expressed concern about the course of the war. Subsequently, its Foreign Minister, in a meeting at the United Nations, declared that “President Xi stressed the need to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries and wants a ceasefire.” This is a harsh warning aimed at the Kremlin leader. The eternal friendship that the two countries had promised each other at this year’s Winter Olympics has conditions. Xi has not turned his back on his friend Putin, but warns him that the situation must change and that disruption of the international order (including the nuclear threat) is in no way acceptable.
India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has also had harsh words to say about Putin’s decisions: “This is not a time for war,” he told the United Nations, marking a clear change of pace in relations with Moscow. In recent months Modi has tried to remain equidistant from both parties, partly because of the huge discounts on Russian oil obtained from Moscow. At the same time, however, he has observed Russia’s rapprochement with China with growing concern. In any case, for the time being India will not break relations with Russia, but neither will it break relations with the West.
Turkey has also declared at the UN that it will not recognize the referenda that Russia held in the Ukrainian regions. It should be remembered that Ankara has always considered the referendum on the annexation of Crimea illegal for understandable geopolitical reasons regarding the control of the Black Sea. Erdoğan’s Turkey has so far maintained cordial relations with Moscow: besides the agreement on wheat, it had managed to obtain, with U.S. consent, a valuable exchange of hostages between Russia and Ukraine. But the mobilization of troops and the announced nuclear threat seem to have taken Erdoğan by surprise. Only a short while earlier he had declared: “I have the impression that Putin wants to end the war as soon as possible.” A completely erroneous prediction, as well as a risky one.
The U.S. has commented harshly and decisively on the Kremlin leader’s remarks. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, addressing the members of the UN Security Council, asked them to send a clear and decisive message to Putin, in order to stop nuclear threats against Ukraine. Subsequently, President Joe Biden also intervened, affirming that the United States and Western countries are not afraid of Putin’s threats and that they are capable of responding with determination to Moscow’s provocations, even extreme ones. All this makes one fear the worst. This can happen if one has “one’s back to the wall” as a desperate gesture of weakness or, worse, if one has lost one’s reason and moral sense. It must not be forgotten, however, that this “language” falls – at least one hopes – in some way within the perverse dynamic whereby the nuclear weapon assumes a character of deterrence.
The use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine is now a possible scenario that must be taken seriously. Putin has already warned that this time, speaking of “all means,” he is not bluffing. This, however, even for Moscow presents more risks than benefits. First, the use of small nuclear bombs would be a clear confirmation of Russia’s military weakness in waging a conventional war. In particular, it would be tantamount to admitting defeat on the battlefield. Second, it would turn Russia into a pariah nation, like North Korea, and it would lose the support of China and other international powers. Third, such an attack would render several square kilometers of territory uninhabitable, possibly killing Russian soldiers. Radiation, as the case of Chernobyl teaches us, would affect parts of Russia and EU countries, thus involving them in a world war. In any case, whether credible or not, “this threat must be taken seriously because we are in a situation of very low probability and very high potential effects.”
Pope Francis has spoken out against war, and in particular against the use of nuclear weapons. In the Angelus on Sunday, October 2, he said, “What about the fact that humanity is once again faced with the nuclear threat? It is absurd.” The pope dedicated his entire speech to the “war of aggression” in Ukraine. In his message he mentioned, for the first time, both the president of the Russian Federation and the president of Ukraine, pleading with the former to stop, for the love of his people, this spiral of violence and death, and the latter to be open “to serious proposals for peace.” Francis deplored actions contrary to the principles of international law and, in the name of God, called for an immediate ceasefire. This appeal by the pope recalls the historic message launched by John XXIII on October 25, 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when, for the first time, humanity – ordinary people as well as heads of state – found themselves experiencing the nightmare risk of total destruction.
Recently, the situation has become even more complicated, following a disastrous explosion on October 8 on the Kerch bridge (connecting Russia to Crimea), attributed by Moscow to Ukrainian “terrorists.” The Russian leader, following the advice of “party hawks,” immediately announced a plan of revenge. In fact, on October 10 several Ukrainian cities, Kyiv in the lead, were hit for several hours by a rain of Russian missiles and bombs. There were 19 civilian deaths and almost 100 wounded, while much non-military infrastructure was destroyed. The attack was condemned by the international community. “These attacks,” said Biden, “only reinforce our commitment to the Ukrainian people […]. We will continue to impose costs on Russia for its aggression, hold Putin and Russia accountable for its atrocities and war crimes, and provide the support necessary for Ukrainian forces to defend themselves, including advanced air defense systems.” Momentous words. Noteworthy is the definition of “war crimes” with respect to such acts and the U.S. commitment to bolster air defense, which is what Zelensky is asking Western powers to do at this time.
Immediately afterward, the Western powers, gathered in the G7 convened by Germany, confirmed the U.S. requests for new military aid to Kyiv. These interventions, however, could have the consequence of raising the level of the clash and increase the danger of the use of nuclear arms, even though in recent times, Putin – considering the negative reactions of China and India – has moderated his bellicose and apocalyptic language. One must not, however, forget that the nuclear threat, from being an instrument of propaganda (and no longer of deterrence) could, in extreme situations, become an undesirable factor.
Now we would like to go back over, albeit briefly, the story of the Cuban crisis of 1962, to which we have referred, so that it may help us with the current talk of a nuclear threat, to understand that there is always “a way back,” even when one has gone to an extreme position.
The crisis in Cuba and the Vatican
There has been much historical discussion on the relevance of the intervention of John XXIII in the resolution of the dramatic crisis in Cuba in October 1962. He addressed his words not to the heads of the two superpowers (USSR, US) but to “men of good will.” In the historical sphere, the interpretation given to this appeal is still very controversial and not always free from ideological considerations.
It should first of all be remembered that the Holy See, already in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution in January 1959, had not openly sided with the United States and, although the new Cuban revolutionary government had sought the protection of the Soviet Union, it had maintained a neutral position, as was in the tradition of Vatican diplomacy. At the moment when the new U.S. president, the Catholic John Fitzgerald Kennedy, put into effect a total commercial embargo against the island, demanding from all American allies a diplomatic break with the new government of the Marxist Fidel Castro and even threatening a military invasion, the pope did not yield to those who asked him, in order to support the policy of the U.S. president, to excommunicate the new Cuban regime and break off diplomatic relations. Another effect of this prudent and impartial way of acting on the part of the Holy See on that occasion was that all the Cuban bishops were able to participate in the imminent Second Vatican Council.
The crisis began in the summer of 1962, when the “positioning” of Russian fighter planes on Cuban territory provoked, as a response on the part of the U.S. administration, the sending of a squadron of bombers to Florida, ready to intervene in case of a Soviet attack on American territory. On October 16, President Kennedy was informed that the Soviets had installed offensive missile launching sites in Cuba, whose missiles could easily reach the territory of the United States and other Latin American countries. It was, according to Soviet Intelligence, a legitimate retaliatory measure in response to U.S. “interference” in Germany, and in particular in Berlin, which had been divided into two parts by the Wall for a year. In reality, the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba was a tactical maneuver to put the American president in difficulty with the imminence of the mid-term elections, while the Soviet premier needed to demonstrate to his internal opponents that he was a strong man, capable of facing the West and keeping the U.S. neocolonialism at bay. The situation, however, over time got out of hand for the contenders, becoming more critical day by day than had initially been imagined.
On October 22, President Kennedy addressed the American people on television, showing them photos of Soviet missile launch pads in Cuba. In a non-negotiable form, he announced a naval blockade around the Caribbean island, to prevent nuclear warheads, loaded – it was said – on Soviet ships already on their way to Cuba, from reaching their destination. The world followed with bated breath the dramatic events of those days, fearing the outbreak of a nuclear war with unpredictable consequences. The Council, which had begun a little more than a month before, and which on October 20 had approved a message addressed to the world, experienced a moment of pause. Some bishops, in particular those from Eastern Europe, intended to return to their own countries if the situation did not return to normal.
While the diplomacy of the two superpowers was frantically engaged in finding a dignified way out of the crisis which was becoming more and more serious, a group of Soviet and American academics and intellectuals gathered at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, to discuss the relations between East and West. After Kennedy’s alarming message to the nation, the conference participants voted to continue their proceedings. Fr. Felix Morlion, rector of the Pro Deo University in Rome, was urged by several colleagues from both delegations to telephone the Vatican to request an intervention by the pope. He was told that John XXIII was very worried about the situation and that, before intervening with a message of his own, he wanted to be certain that the two parties were agreeable to it, and furthermore he wanted to be informed of the conditions set by the contending parties for reaching an agreement in principle. At this point the handling of the matter passed to diplomats . Norman Cousins, head of the U.S. delegation and a personal friend of many Soviet leaders, asked an adviser of the U.S. President, Theodore Sorensen, to inform Kennedy of the pope’s proposal, obtaining a positive response. At the same time, the head of mission of the Soviet delegation in Andover reported to Moscow, which welcomed the pontifical initiative with satisfaction.
On the morning of the 25th the pope worked intensively on the preparation of the message. He listened to the American cardinals present at the Council one after the other and then also to some German bishops. That morning a statement of the Secretary General of the United Nations, U Thant, was communicated, which in an even-handed manner asked the United States to lift the naval blockade on Cuba and the Soviet Union not to send missiles to the Caribbean island. John XXIII’s brief radio message was broadcast by Vatican Radio in French at noon. It did not mention the two heads of state involved in the terrible dispute, but was simply addressed “to men of good will.” The language of the message was simple and incisive; it confined itself “to the materiality of the causes of crisis [and] offered an honorable course for both.” The message, given that the Holy See had no diplomatic relations with either superpower, was delivered through the ambassadors of the two countries accredited to the Quirinale (Italy).
Meanwhile, on October 26, Khrushchev sent a letter to the U.S. president, declaring himself in principle in agreement with the request of the UN Secretary General; at the same time he asked for guarantees that in future neither the United States nor any other American ally would invade Cuba. A subsequent letter from the Soviet president, sent on October 27, further complicated the issue, raising the stakes. This time Moscow demanded the dismantling of the U.S. Jupiter missiles, stationed in Turkey (which the U.S. government actually considered obsolete and strategically useless and had decided to eliminate), in exchange for the removal of the missiles in Cuba. Furthermore, the two superpowers would commit themselves, in the United Nations Security Council, to respect the territorial sovereignty of Turkey and Cuba. This proposal greatly embarrassed the U.S. administration.
Logically, Khrushchev’s second letter was an expression, more than of the mind of the Soviet president, of the claims made by the “hawks” within the Communist party. After a long discussion, it was decided at the White House to reply only to the first letter, ignoring the contents of the second. On October 28, Khrushchev accepted the terms established by the U.S. president and, at the same time, made known a long list of grievances expressed by the Cuban government about the United States. The communiqué was certainly not friendly toward the United States, but there was no mention of the missiles stationed in Turkey. Kennedy received the message and agreed that discussions on the negotiations should be initiated in the United Nations by the two respective diplomatic representatives. The great fear therefore subsided; the risk of nuclear war had receded, even if somewhat ambiguously.
But what role did the pope’s message play in the resolution of the crisis? Notwithstanding the due and opportune thanks sent to the pope privately by the American and Soviet presidents, it must be said that it was above all the latter who held the pontifical intervention to be important. According to some scholars, the very way in which Khrushchev presented the question in the letters sent to the U.S. president was influenced by the persuasive words of John XXIII. “Khrushchev,” Alberto Melloni writes in this regard, “offered an agreement because ‘the whole world is anxious,’ and to avert the risk of conflict is to restore ‘joy to all mankind’.” The U.S. administration, on the other hand, officially never quoted the pope’s words and did everything possible to support the thesis that the pope’s intervention had had no influence on the decision taken by the president of the United States on such an important political issue as the Cuba crisis.
With regard to Khrushchev, on several occasions he expressed words of appreciation to the pope for his commitment to world peace: in particular, with regard to the question we are dealing with, in a meeting on December 13, 1962, he told his friend Cousins that “the pope’s appeal was a true ray of light” and that he was immensely grateful. Once back in Rome, Cousins personally delivered Khrushchev’s message and Christmas greetings to the pope. A few days later John XXIII replied in a cordial tone to the words of the Soviet premier, wishing the Russian people peace and prosperity.
The hope for the present is that Pope Francis’ words against war and against the use of nuclear weapons will be heeded, as were those of a pope 60 years before, and that serious negotiations for an immediate “ceasefire” will be undertaken, in the interests of the two countries involved and of all humanity.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.12 art. 5, 1222: 10.32009/22072446.1222.5
. Cf “Putin’s war is failing. The West should help him fail faster”, in The Economist, September 15, 2022.
. These rockets have a range of about 40 miles. Zelensky asked the Pentagon to send ATACMS, which have a very long range, capable of striking Russian territory. Biden replied negatively, for fear of an excessive reaction from Moscow, such as bacteriological weapons and the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Cf. M. Gaggi, “Armi a Kiev, il freno dei generali Usa che ora temono la reazione di Mosca”, in Corriere della Sera, September 20, 2022. Zelensky, in order to remove his country from the nuclear threat, has asked the U.S. to welcome Ukraine into NATO. This has created disagreement both in the U.S. administration and among European allies. In any case, a decision of this kind is not easy to take, considering that all 30 NATO allied countries must agree on its joining.
. See R. Castelletti, “Mosca prepara l’annessione, i leader separatisti: Referendum in quattro regioni”, in la Repubblica, September 21, 2022.
. According to Moscow’s military doctrine, the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the occupied areas now becomes “an aggression against Russian sovereignty.” This means that the special military operation is transformed into a defensive war, and therefore Russia will be able to use any means, even the nuclear option, to protect its national territory. See “Le proteste e i referendum”, in Internazionale, September 30, 2022, 38.
. Cf. D. Quirico, “Ricatto atomico e bluff insondabili. Così lo zar prova a uscire dall’angolo”, in La Stampa, September 30, 2022. The words of former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are alarming: “We will also use nuclear weapons to defend the annexed territories.” Behind these words one can glimpse Putin’s intention to exaggerate the conflict and frighten the Western democracies. Cf. F. Sforza, “L’escalation atomica”, in La Stampa, September 23, 2022.
. According to the Secretary of the United Nations, António Guterres, “the referenda violate the UN Charter.” Cf. P. Mastrolilli, “Mosca isolata alle Nazioni Unite. Anche Cina e India si dissociano”, in la Repubblica, September 23, 2022.
. Cf. “La protesta per i referendum”, in Internazionale, September 30, 2022, 38.
. Cf. A. Teniseva, “I russi scappano dalla guerra”, in Internazionale, September 23, 2022, 37.
 . Cf. B. Vitkine, “La fuga in avanti del Cremlino”, in Internazionale, September 23, 2022, 18.
. “Vladimir Putin stages four fake referendums in occupied Ukraine”, in The Economist, September 27, 2022.
. Recently, General Sergei Surovikin, the new commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine, ordered a retreat of the army from the city of Kherson, thus moving the front further inland; he stated that “a difficult situation has emerged in the Kherson area.” In addition, beginning on October 19, a massive evacuation of the civilian population from the city and other towns on the western bank of the Dnepr River was ordered. Surovikin, newly appointed, changed his strategy : he decided to suspend military attacks during the winter (taking advantage of this to train the 300,000 reservists) and to hit the electrical and water infrastructure of Ukraine, thus leaving the civilian population in the cold. He has done so by launching a multitude of Iranian-made drones, very cheap, noisy and not very precise, but particularly effective because, besides the damage caused (almost half of the installations have been hit), they force the enemy to use, against them, missiles and projectiles, thus diminishing their stocks. See “Droni e riservisti”, in Internazionale, October 21, 2022, 24.
. Cf. R. Oudan – E. Grynszpan, “La rappresaglia di Mosca”, in Internazionale, October 14, 2022, 22.
. G. Santevecchi, “Il passo laterale di Xi Jinping (per mediare?)”, in Corriere della Sera, September 25, 2022.
. Cf. G. Sarcina, “Sì al petrolio, ma gli Usa contano di più”, in la Repubblica, September 23, 2022. Cf. also V. Pachkov, “India and Russia”, in Civ. Catt. English Ed., June 2022.
. M. Ricci Sargentini, “Erdoğan il più attivo: la Crimea va restituita”, in la Repubblica, September 23, 2022.
. Then-President Draghi, meeting with Biden on September 22, reiterated that Italy will stand by Ukraine in all cases, including with the new government. Cf. A. Simoni, “L’asse Usa-Italia: insieme anche dopo il voto”, in La Stampa, 23 September 2022.
. According to U.S. commanders, nothing at this time would suggest an immediate nuclear attack. In any event, is consideration being given to how to respond to such an eventuality? If U.S. intelligence intercepted signs of preparation for a nuclear attack, it would immediately inform the world, as it did for the attack on Ukraine. Cf. P. Mastrolilli, “Gli Usa: attacco non imminente”, in la Repubblica, October 3, 2022.
. M. Dassù, “Il suicidio nucleare”, in la Repubblica, October 7, 2022. Cf. “Quanto è concreta la minaccia nucleare”, in Internazionale, October 7, 2022, 28.
. Francis, Angelus, October 2, 2022, in www.vatican.va
. R. Oudan – E. Grynszpan, “La rappresaglia di Mosca”, in Internazionale, October 14, 2022, 21.
. Cf. M. Serafini, “Pioggia di missili russi contro le città e i civili”, in Corriere della Sera, October 11, 2022; “Russia launches a wave of missiles across Ukraine”, in The Economist, October 10, 2022.
. P. Mastrolilli, “Biden: ‘Il nuovo attacco su Kiev un crimine di guerra’. E promette la contraerea a Zelensky”, in la Repubblica, October 11, 2022.
. In those days, in diplomatic circles, there was also talk of a possible meeting between Putin and Biden at the G20 summit in Bali in November. This possibility, however, was ruled out by both leaders. On October 13, in Astana, there was a meeting between Erdoğan and Putin. There had been talk of a “Turkish peace plan” for an imminent ceasefire, but in reality only gas was discussed at the summit: in particular, Moscow’s project to strengthen the natural gas distribution network in the Black Sea. Cf. R. Castelletti, “Il piano di pace può attendere. Erdoğan e Putin parlano solo di gas”, in la Repubblica, October 14, 2022. However, dialogue cannot be left to the escalation of war propaganda, as has been the case so far, but it is necessary to activate diplomacy at all levels in order to reach a ceasefire as soon as possible.
. Cf. G. Alberigo (ed), Storia del Concilio Vaticano II, vol. Bologna, il Mulino, 1996, 114f. On the Cuban crisis, cf. L. Chang – P. Kornbluh (eds), The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962, New York, W. W. Norton, 1992, 150f; M. Tatu, Power in the Kremlin: From Khrushchev to Kosygin, New York, Viking Press, 1974, 230f.
. For the pope’s message, cf. Oss. Rom., October 26, 1962.
. A. Melloni, L’altra Roma. Politica e S. Sede durante il Concilio Vaticano II (1959-1965), Bologna, il Mulino, 2000, 134.
. Ibid., 135.
. N. Cousins, The Improbable Triumvirate: John F. Kennedy, Pope John, Nikita Khrushchev, New York, Norton & Company, 1972, 44.