Why Vladimir Putin is annexing Ukrainian territory


President Vladimir Putin will sign agreements on Friday that will absorb thousands of square kilometers of Ukrainian territory into Russia, in what would be Europe’s largest annexation by force since 1945.

The accords will be signed at a ceremony in the Kremlin, three days after hastily held referendums in four areas of Ukraine that Moscow will now consider Russian territory.

Putin will give a speech and meet with the leaders of the four occupied regions backed by Russia, the Kremlin said.

Ukraine and its Western allies have flatly rejected the planned annexation of four regions: Donetsk, Luhansk and Kherson and a large part of Zaporizhzhia, a chunk of Ukrainian land with heavy industry, rich agricultural land and a critical freshwater channel to Crimea.

Donetsk and Luhansk separate the two republics Moscow has protected since 2014, while parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia have been controlled by Russian forces since the invasion began in late February.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has confirmed that if the Kremlin goes ahead with the annexation, any negotiations with Putin will be impossible.

In all, Russia plans to raise its flag over about 100,000 square kilometers (38,600 square miles) of Ukrainian territory in a flagrant breach of international law, and after votes rejected by most countries, including some of Russia’s friends like Serbia. as nullity.

While the international community almost unanimously rejects Russia’s plan (expect some outliers like Syria and North Korea), annexation changes the “facts on the ground” and reduces the chances of any negotiated settlement.

There is a big difference between withdrawing from occupied lands (as the Russians did in April when they withdrew from much of northern Ukraine) and leaving formally and ceremoniously absorbed areas in the motherland, especially for an entrenched leader like Putin. “With a greater Russia.”

In fact, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said last week that once the so-called republics are integrated into the Russian Federation, “not a single future leader or official of Russia will be able to reverse these decisions.”

And when the Russian flag flies over these areas, they meet the same level of protection as any other part of the Russian Federation, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Saturday.

As Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Endowment said last week, the Kremlin’s message to its Ukrainian allies is: “You chose to fight us in Ukraine, now try to fight us in Russia itself, or rather what we call it. Russia”.

The second part of that message – spelled out in Putin’s speech announcing the partial mobilization – is that any attack on what is considered Russian territory invites a full range of reprisals.

In 2020, Putin signed a decree updating Russia’s nuclear doctrine, allowing the use of nuclear weapons “in the case of attacks against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is threatened.”

The definition of this threat is not exactly clear, but last week Putin gave his most explicit warning: “The territorial integrity of our homeland, our independence and freedom will be guaranteed, I will emphasize that again, with all the means at our disposal. . And those who try to blackmail with nuclear weapons should know that the prevailing winds can turn in their direction.’

For most observers, such dire warnings are a hopeless gamble. US officials have said they do not believe Putin will resort to tactical nuclear weapons, although they cannot rule out the possibility.

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The threat is “definitely elevated” compared to earlier this year, multiple sources told CNN on Wednesday. The US has privately warned Russia in recent months not to take such a catastrophic step.

But so far, there are no signs that Russia plans to use it and “the overall assessment has not changed,” said a source familiar with the intelligence.

Putin may also be hoping that the annexation ceremonies will strengthen public opinion behind his goals after widespread complaints and protests over the poorly executed partial mobilization.

It enjoyed stratospheric approval following the annexation of Crimea following a similar so-called referendum in 2014, but much has changed since then. The Russian sanctions are weighing heavily (and the annexation process will bring more) and have suffered at least 70,000 casualties in Ukraine, according to US and NATO officials.

Anatol Lieven, director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute, told CNN last week that Putin’s real goal is to “convince the US and/or the Europeans to get serious about negotiating a compromise solution to end the war, otherwise showing that Russia will do it. It’s not just a radical step up.” , which will force the West to step up at the same time, because they will reject any possible future peace for a long time.’

If that is the case, Putin may be disappointed. There is no sign that Ukraine or Western governments have heeded this warning. The US has just announced another batch of high-tech weapons for Ukraine, including more long-range HIMARS artillery systems that have transformed the battlefield.

And Ukrainian forces, far from thinking twice about the increased risk of attacking areas now claimed by Moscow, are accelerating their offensive in the Donetsk region. Pro-Russian forces in and around the town of Lyman are about to be surrounded.

If they are forced to surrender the territory in the heart of the Donbas, which the Kremlin considers Russian territory, it will be an early test of Putin’s newly drawn red line.

Ulrich Speck, an analyst at Carnegie and RFE, tweeted Thursday: “If borders are not clearly demarcated, threats to defend ‘Russian borders’ in Ukraine even with nuclear weapons quickly lose credibility and become combat irrelevant.”

And Jon Wolfsthal, a former arms control official in the Obama administration, tweeted: “Putin has given us a choice: allow us to draw the border by force and avoid nuclear threats (for now) or reject the fake referendum and help protect Ukraine. He and the concept of the nation-state and nuclear dangers ».