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A 2020 Amendment to the Russian Constitution Is Another Sign Putin’s Invasion Isn’t Going as Planned.

Ambassador Mark Green

One year after Russian forces first rolled into eastern Ukraine, the costs for Russia continue to mount. According to Ukrainian data, cited by the UK’s Ministry of Defence, the death rate for Russian soldiers is the highest since the early days of the war. And while the Kremlin claims to be capturing small communities in eastern Ukraine and it continues to hurl missiles into various parts of the country, there’s little evidence that Ukrainian resolve has been shaken.

It can’t be what Putin envisioned when he began this invasion, as evidenced by political moves he made more than two years ago.

In 2020, Putin pushed through a number of amendments to the Russian Constitution aimed at expanding his executive powers and ensuring his hold on power—even after his term expires. But an additional amendment explicitly prohibited the Russian government from returning any territory to its previous status once it has been declared part of Russia. The change to the constitution was presumably made to publicly reaffirm Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014—an annexation that very few countries recognize and has been declared invalid through a United Nations General Assembly resolution. However, its application to the current situation is especially complicated for Russia and could lead to significant new domestic pressures on Putin and his grip on power.

In September 2022, Moscow declared the annexation of four regions in Ukraine: Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. Just like the world’s response to the declaration of annexation in Crimea, very few countries support the Kremlin’s efforts. Only four countries recognized the annexation—Syria, Nicaragua, North Korea, and Belarus—and the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly rejected the announcement.

But Russia has an additional problem with respect to its 2022 declaration: it is not in effective complete control of all the territory the declaration covers. Of the four regions, Russia has only managed to seize the capital city of Kherson, though it was later reclaimed by the Ukrainian military. Russia currently occupies Luhansk and Donetsk, but it already had a presence there before it began its 2022 invasion.

As the war now enters its second year, Putin’s constitutional amendment on territories has created a dilemma for him. He can keep fighting a seemingly intractable battle for full control of these regions at immense economic and human cost to Russia and its people, or he can essentially forfeit that territory. The latter move means violating the very constitutional provisions he championed in 2020—raising questions about his leadership of a war he insists he’s winning, and the legitimacy of the package of amendments he previously advanced to expand and extend his reign.

In other words, this brutal campaign against Ukraine can’t be going as he planned.

This blog was completed with the assistance of Carlotta Murin.

Painting of Catherine the Great's royal procession on a beach in Feodosia, Crimea

Putin’s Annexation Miscalculation

Kennan Institute Director William E. Pomeranz writes that the decision to annex occupied Ukrainian territories has "backed Putin into a corner." Institutional changes wrought under Putin's own direction—as well as the weight of Russian history—may keep him there.


About the Author

Ambassador Mark Green

Ambassador Mark A. Green

President & CEO, Wilson Center
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