Putin makes the war in Ukraine even more dangerous

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Vladimir Putin makes the war in Ukraine even more dangerous by annexing 15 percent of Ukrainian territory

On Friday, in an announcement paired with an elaborately staged celebration in Moscow’s Red Square, Russian President Vladimir Putin formally announced the annexation of four oblasts, or provinces, of Ukraine, comprising some 40,000 square miles and 15 percent of the country’s territory.

“This is the will of millions of people,” Putin said Friday, speaking in the Grand Kremlin Palace. “This is their right. Their inalienable right.” The residents of the four provinces, he said, “are becoming our citizens — forever.” His annexation complete — rhetorically at least — the Russian leader called on Ukraine to negotiate.

But no matter what Putin says, unless you live in Russia itself, you probably don’t need to buy a new map.

“The United States, I want to be very clear about this, United States will never, never, never recognize Russia’s claims on Ukraine sovereign territory,” President Joe Biden said in Washington on Thursday. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said the annexation “stands against everything the international community is meant to stand for” and “has no place in the modern world.”

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The annexation follows a series of hastily organized referendums in Russian-controlled territories last week. The votes were held in places where many Ukrainians had already fled and were conducted by poll workers who in some cases went door-to-door accompanied by armed soldiers; not surprisingly, the results were lopsided in favor of annexation, ranging from 87 percent of the vote in Kherson to 98.4 percent in Luhansk.

Putin has used this playbook before. In 2014, Russia formally annexed Crimea after its special forces seized the peninsula and staged a similarly lopsided referendum. The Kremlin has also provided military support to pro-Russian separatist enclaves in the former Soviet Union including Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and Transnistria in Moldova.

But those places are at least under Russian control; the four provinces Putin welcomed into the Russian federation today are active battlefields. “Obviously this is an extension of that same policy, but it’s not going to work this time because the Ukrainians are fighting back,” Robert Orttung, a research professor at George Washington University’s Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, told Grid.

In three of the provinces — Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk — Ukrainian forces hold large parts of the territory. The fourth, Luhansk, is under near-total Russian control, though perhaps not for long.

One of the most widely used definitions of a “state,” originally formulated by the German sociologist Max Weber, is that it is the entity which holds a monopoly on the use of force or violence in a given territory. By this standard, areas under the control of the Ukrainian military are clearly not part of the Russian state, no matter what Putin says.

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Why would Putin bother with this gambit at all? While clearly a move born of desperation in response to internal criticism and Russia’s recent battlefield setbacks, there is a certain logic to it. That logic carries some clues about how Putin now views Russia’s goals and next steps in the war — including potentially raising concerns about the nuclear threat level.

Why annexation?

Eastern Ukraine, and in particular Donetsk and Luhansk, which together make up the region known as the Donbas, have been ground zero of this conflict for years. Parts of Donetsk and Luhansk have been under the control of separatist “people’s republics” since 2014, when Putin sent in Russian troops to support them. Putin formally recognized Donetsk and Luhansk as independent just before this year’s much larger invasion. Now he’s taken the further step of actually absorbing them into Russia.

These are largely Russian-speaking areas where many locals tend to identify as culturally Russian and often backed politicians who favored closer links to Moscow rather than Europe. That doesn’t necessarily mean they would have chosen annexation in a fair vote. One prewar poll by a German think tank found that in the occupied regions, about 55 percent of the population favored a return to the Ukrainian rule.

False claims of “genocide” against local Russian speakers by the Ukrainian government were a major facet of Putin’s justification for the original invasion, but what Russia actually gains by officially annexing these regions is less clear.

The areas are rich in certain resources. The Donbas was once a major center of coal and steel manufacturing. Kherson is an agricultural center and includes an important Black Sea port. Zaporizhzhia is home to the now globally famous nuclear power plant that in normal times provides about a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity. But given that the Donbas was dependent on billions of dollars a year in Russian aid even before the war and the sure-to-be massive costs of reconstructing these devastated regions after the war — not to mention the economic costs of the war itself — the Kremlin is not exactly turning a profit with this move.

The resource the Kremlin may be more interested in right now is people. Faced with manpower shortages in their own ranks, Russian forces have already been relying heavily on separatist militia fighters from the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics in some of the war’s bloodiest battles. According to British intelligence, more than half of the Donetsk’s militia fighters have been lost. The annexations, announced in conjunction with the Kremlin’s new mobilization policy, will increase the pool of potential recruits. In Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, men aged 18 to 35 have already been forbidden to leave and required to report for military duty. In other words, Ukrainians are being conscripted to fight other Ukrainians.

The annexation could also give the Russian military more leeway for how it uses the troops it has begun conscripting within its borders. According to Russian law (admittedly, not a law that has been consistently followed recently), conscripts can’t be sent outside Russia’s borders without at least four months of training. So rather than changing the law, Putin is simply changing the borders: defining the battlefields of Ukraine as being within Ukrainian territory.

More important than any material considerations, Putin may simply have felt the need to change the public narrative in Russia about this war. Now Putin can say that Russia has gained territory — and in the new narrative, that its forces there are fighting to hold onto the gains.

At a panel discussion hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace this week, senior fellow Alexander Baunov explained: “The annexation turns the offensive war into a defensive war for Russia’s borders. There’s almost something superstitious about this. Russia can lose some military expedition, but Russia always wins a war when it’s waged inside Russia. They’re trying to turn this war of aggression into something legitimate.”

Some analysts also suspect Russia may use the annexation as a prelude to a call for a ceasefire along the current front lines. Ukraine and its allies would almost certainly not agree to this, but it would allow Putin, internally at least, to paint the Ukrainians as the aggressors.


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The annexation taboo

Whether or not annexation helps the image of Putin and his war at home, it’s certainly not going to win him support abroad. The global norm against forcible annexation — or as the U.N. Charter puts it, “threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” — is one that most countries and a wide variety of political regimes actually take very seriously. As University of Minnesota political scientist Tanisha Fazal told Grid just prior to the invasion of Ukraine, “If we go back to the 19th century, and even the early 20th century, it wasn’t that uncommon for entire countries to be swallowed up by their neighbors. ... After 1945, we did see a major shift in how countries exerted control over their neighbors.”

Hence the secretary-general’s strongly worded condemnation of Putin’s “violation.”

In the rare cases they do happen, such attempts by countries to seize territory — think Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait or Argentina’s attempt to seize the Falkland Islands in 1982 — almost always meet with failure and a return to the status quo. Since the end of the Cold War and the breakup of Yugoslavia, the map of the world has remained remarkably static by historical standards.

Russia’s successful seizure of Crimea in 2014 was the exception that proves the rule: It had significant local support and was carried out before Ukraine, reeling from massive protests and the ouster of the country’s government, had a chance to react.

That land grab didn’t get much international support either, even among Russia’s ostensible friends. That year, only 11 countries voted against a U.S. resolution condemning the annexation in the U.N. General Assembly, with 58 abstentions. Today, only seven countries actually recognize Crimea as part of Russian territory: Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Afghanistan, North Korea, Syria and — only since last December — Belarus.

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The number of countries backing Russia’s latest annexation is unlikely to extend too much beyond this list, and may be even smaller. Some erstwhile Russian allies — Serbia and Kazakhstan, to name two — have already announced their opposition. The same is likely to hold true for the government of China, which, even as it has largely backed Russia’s anti-Western narrative on the war, has been careful to repeatedly stress its support for the “territorial integrity of all countries.” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey, who has generally sought to maintain relations with both sides in this war and play a mediator role, was unequivocal when asked in a recent interview if there were any circumstances under which Russia would be allowed to hold onto Ukrainian territory. “No, and undoubtedly no,” he told PBS. “The lands which were invaded will be returned to Ukraine.”

As for Ukraine itself, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that annexation will “make it impossible, in any case, to continue any diplomatic negotiations with the president of [the] Russian Federation.

Even in peacetime, it’s an extremely difficult political sell for a government to convince its population that ceding territory is in their interest. Even the smallest border adjustments are highly controversial: In 2017, violent protests broke out in Cairo after Egypt agreed to transfer two uninhabited islands to Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps in the early days of the war, if Russia had concentrated its forces on the Donbas rather than its ill-fated attempt to take Kyiv, there could have been a scenario in which Zelenskyy would have been forced to negotiate away some territory, at great political cost. Now, after all the atrocities committed by Russian forces, the level of Western support Kyiv is receiving and Ukraine’s recent battlefield successes, it’s almost impossible to imagine Ukraine voluntarily ceding any territory.

Looking forward, Nina Caspersen, a political scientist at the University of York who studies territorial conflict, worries that Russia’s land grabs could weaken the previously robust norm against territorial conquest. “It was already a worry that it was that the annexation of Crimea had significantly weakened it, and I guess that’s what we’re seeing now that that was indeed the case,” she told Grid. “And the worry is that could give some other states similar ideas.”

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The road ahead

For the time being, annexation is unlikely to make a huge difference on the battlefield. Ukraine and its allies will not recognize Russia’s new self-declared borders, and the fight will continue.

There are growing concerns that annexation raises the likelihood of nuclear weapons use. Russia’s official nuclear doctrine permits first use of these weapons when “the very existence of the state is under threat.” This means that, in theory, Ukraine is now attacking areas Russia considers part of its state. Putin gave more reason for concern on Friday by saying, in reference to the annexed areas, “We will defend our lands with all the means at our disposal.”

In the short run, a nuclear retaliation to conventional warfare in Donetsk or Kherson seems unlikely. After all, Ukraine has launched attacks on Crimea for months as well as — while more quietly and sporadically — behind Russia’s internationally recognized borders. But if the conflict does escalate to the nuclear level, the annexation could end up being part of how the Russian government justifies it to its population.

Nukes or no, the annexation does provide a sense of Putin’s view of the war, more than seven months in. When the invasion began, Putin was vague about the actual goals of the “special military operation.” His calls to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians” seemed to suggest wholesale regime change, as did Russia’s ill-fated offensive against Kyiv.

In his speech last week announcing both the annexation and mobilization, Putin said, “The main goal of this operation, which is to liberate the whole of Donbas, remains unaltered.” This is hard to take seriously. Zaporizhzhia and Kherson are not part of the Donbas, and if Russian troops had not been forced out of Kharkiv by last month’s offensive, it seems likely there would have been a “referendum” there as well.

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But Putin now seems much more specific about what he considers an acceptable outcome: annex these regions and force Ukraine and the international community to live with it, even if they never recognize it. The good news for Ukraine and its international backers is that this is a much less expansive goal than the Russian president appeared to have seven months ago. The bad news is that now that he’s defined this goal so openly, it’s much harder to see how he backs down.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Joshua Keating
    Joshua Keating

    Global Security Reporter

    Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid focused on conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy.