Why Vladimir Putin annexes Ukrainian territory


President Vladimir Putin is expected to sign deals on Friday that will absorb thousands of square kilometers of Ukrainian territory into Russia in what will be the largest forced annexation of land in Europe since 1945.

The agreements will be signed at a ceremony in the Kremlin, three days after hastily conducted referendums reached in the four regions of Ukraine that Moscow will now consider Russian territory.

Putin will deliver a speech and meet with Russian-backed leaders from the four occupied regions, according to the Kremlin.

Ukraine and its Western allies have flatly rejected the planned annexation of the four regions – Donetsk, Luhansk and much of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, a strip of Ukrainian land that contains heavy industry, rich agricultural land and a pipeline of essential fresh water for the Crimea.

Donetsk and Luhansk are home to two breakaway republics that Moscow has backed since 2014, while Kherson and parts of Zaporizhzhia are taken over by Russian forces shortly after the invasion began in late February.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has claimed that if the Kremlin pursues its annexation, any negotiations with Putin will be impossible.

In total, Russia plans to raise its flag over some 100,000 square kilometers (38,600 square miles) of Ukrainian territory in what is a clear violation of international law and after votes rejected by the vast majority of countries, including some friends of Russia like Serbia, as null and void.

While the international community will reject Russia’s plan almost in unison (expect a few exceptions like Syria and North Korea), annexation changes the “facts on the ground” and diminishes the prospects of everything. negotiated settlement.

There is a huge difference between withdrawing from occupied lands (as the Russians did in April when they withdrew from much of northern Ukraine) and abandoning areas that have been officially and ceremonially absorbed by the homeland – especially for a leader like Putin who is obsessed with a “big Russia”.

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

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

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

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

In 2020, Putin signed a decree updating Russian nuclear doctrine that authorized the use of nuclear weapons “in the event of aggression 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 entirely clear, but last week Putin issued his most explicit warning to date: “The territorial integrity of our homeland, our independence and our freedom will be ensured, I I will emphasize again, with every means at our disposal.. And those who try to blackmail us 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 would use tactical nuclear weapons, although they cannot rule out the possibility.

‘Putin is cornered’: ex-CIA officer predicts Putin’s next move

The threat is certainly “high” compared to the start of the year, multiple sources told CNN on Wednesday. In recent months, the United States has privately warned Russia not to take such a catastrophic step.

But so far there has been no indication that Russia is planning their use imminently and “the overall assessment has not changed”, a source close to intelligence said.

Putin can also hope the annexation ceremonies for new territory will solidify public opinion behind his goals, after a week in which complaints and protests about the poorly executed partial mobilization have spread.

He enjoyed a stratospheric approval rating after Crimea was annexed after a similar so-called referendum in 2014, but a lot has changed since then. Russia is weighed down by sanctions (and the annexation process will bring more) and has 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 was “to persuade the United States and/or the Europeans to seriously negotiate a compromise settlement to end the war by showing that if not, Russia will take drastic escalation measures that will not only force the West to escalate in turn, but will also preclude any possible peace for a long time.

If so, Putin might be disappointed. There is no sign that Ukraine or Western governments are heeding such a warning. The United States just announced another batch of high-tech weapons for Ukraine, including more battlefield-transforming HIMARS long-range artillery systems.

And the Ukrainian forces, far from thinking twice about the increased risk of attacking areas now considered by Moscow to be its own, are stepping up an 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 cede territory in the heart of Donbass, which in a few days will be considered in the Kremlin as Russian land, it will be a first test of the red line freshly drawn by Putin.

Ulrich Speck, an analyst at Carnegie and RFE, tweeted on Thursday: “If there are no clearly demarcated borders, the threat to defend ‘Russian borders’ in Ukraine, even with nuclear weapons, quickly loses credibility and becomes useless for combat.”

And Jon Wolfsthal, a former Obama administration arms control official, said in a tweet: “Putin gave us a choice: accept the redrawing of the border by force and avoid nuclear threats (for now ) or reject mock referendums and help Ukraine preserve itself and the nation-state concept and accept nuclear risks.


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