Together forever, the billboards proclaimed in the Red Square of Moscow. But even as Russian President Vladimir Putin signed “treaties” folding four Ukrainian territories into Russia on September 30, his soldiers were losing ground there – and Ukrainian flags were still flying.
The strange theatre of Russia’s annexation of roughly 15 per cent of Ukraine, some of which remains under Ukrainian control, has raised the stakes even higher in Putin’s grinding war. Western leaders have denounced the move as an illegal sham while the Kremlin buses in strikingly unenthusiastic Russian citizens to the Red Square to celebrate “the people’s choice”.
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For the first time since the days of the Cold War, officials on both sides are seriously war-gaming a nuclear escalation as more of Putin’s allies call for the use of so-called low-yield tactical nukes to drive out Ukrainian forces from lands that Russia vows it will now “defend” as its own. Meanwhile, Russia has been hit with more sanctions and Ukraine has applied for a fast-tracked NATO membership (and retaken another key city, this time in the east).
So what does the annexation mean? And why does it mark a dangerous turning point in the war?
What did Putin do?
In early September, a lighting counter-offensive by Ukraine seized as much territory in days as Russia had taken in months, including the key northern city of Kharkiv. On the retreat, Russia hastily scrambled to enact a new plan: annexation. In the territory it still held across the eastern Donbas regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, as well as Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south, its forces held sham referendums. Soldiers rounded up locals to vote, often at gunpoint. And to no-one’s surprise, Russia got the “results” it wanted: all four territories voted to become part of Russia.
Russia’s annexation gamble: Why is Putin raising the stakes?
Russian political insiders say move to formally seize Ukrainian territory underscores Moscow’s refusal to back down.“There is no doubt that Russia has crossed the Rubicon,” said Konstantin Zatulin, a senior lawmaker in the State Duma from the ruling United Russia party.
Russia has celebrated the signing of new treaties with these territories in an elaborate ceremony but, to the rest of the world, the claims are illegal. Even Russia’s staunchest allies are unlikely to recognise them. Annexation means seizing another nation’s sovereign territory by force.
Russia followed this same playbook when it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. After the Maidan revolution unseated Ukraine’s then pro-Kremlin president, Putin’s “little green men” – soldiers without insignia – were sent across the border to sow chaos and seize territory. But although the move in 2014 drew widespread condemnation, that annexation came with much less bloodshed. Major sanctions were imposed by Western countries only after commercial plane MH17 was shot down during fighting in the east, which had also broken out in 2014.
This month, in announcing this latest annexation in the east and south, Putin called on Ukraine to enter peace talks but insisted the seized territories were not up for discussion. “I want the authorities in Kyiv and their real overlords in the West to hear me: The residents of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson are becoming our citizens,” he said. “Forever.” Any attack on these regions will now be considered an attack on Russia, which will defend itself with “all means at its disposal,” he said, again raising the spectre of nuclear war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin paves way for annexation by recognising Kherson, Zaporizhzhia as independent territories
Moscow is poised to annex parts of Ukraine, in what Kyiv and the West have denounced as illegal, sham referendums. Here's what could happen next.Russian President Vladimir Putin has now signed decrees paving the way for the occupied Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia to be formally annexed into Russia.
Still, even Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov couldn’t say where Russia would draw its new borders with so much of the area under Ukrainian control (Russia occupies only about 60 per cent of Donetsk, for example). More land would have to be “liberated”, he said, and that has many analysts concerned that the scale of Russia’s attack may escalate again.
The treaties will go before Russian parliament, the Duma, where Putin’s ruling United Russia party holds the majority and real opposition figures are blocked from running. In an attempted show of legitimacy, Russia’s Constitutional Court has already rubber-stamped the move, and Putin is expected to address the Duma ahead of his 70th birthday on October 7.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has joined world leaders in condemning the annexation as a dangerous escalation with “no legal value”.
Why did Russia annex the territories?
Russia has been suffering humiliating defeats on the battlefield of late, its forces ground down by months of fighting. Even now that the Kremlin has made the unpopular move to call up a partial draft of Russian citizens to fight on the frontline (sparking a wave of protest and large exodus of Russians from the country), the Russian war campaign remains in trouble. Putin needs a win.
Putin claims parts of Ukraine and rocket strike kills dozens - round-up
Vladimir Putin sparks outcry by annexing four regions of Ukraine, while President Zelensky applies to Nato.In an angry speech in Moscow filled with accusations against the West, he claimed that people in Russian-held Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions had made their choice to join Russia.
Analysts say the annexations mean he can draw focus at home away from mounting troop losses and onto a supposed existential battle between Russia and the West – as he again tried to recast the war in his speech on September 30. (In the televised address, he branded the United States and NATO as enemies and “Satanists” seeking to tear down Russia.)
More importantly, claiming the territories as Russian will bring them under Russia’s nuclear umbrella. Russia has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, and Putin keeps stressing that he will not hesitate to defend Russian territory from attack. “This is not a bluff,” he has said.
Western officials generally believe it is a bluff, likely an attempt to make Ukraine back off while Putin’s forces regroup, and to end the flow of Western weapons and aid into the country. Russia cannot win a fight with NATO directly and would risk losing what few allies it has left, such as China, and even poisoning its own troops if it used even small-scale nukes on the battlefield. But experts say just raising the spectre of nuclear war brings greater risk of miscalculation – on all sides (although so far, countries such as the US have not responded in kind to Putin by raising their own nuclear threat levels).
While some high-profile Russians have publicly denounced the idea of breaking the nuclear taboo, others have begun calling for the use of tactical nukes, including Chechnyan leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the oligarch known as “Putin’s chef”, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who funds the private mercenary group Wagner and the Kremlin’s Internet Research Agency troll farm. Officials in Washington and elsewhere have begun war-gaming such scenarios, and relaying private warnings to Moscow to pull back as well as issuing public condemnations.
Russian troops 'encircled' near key Ukraine town in annexed region
Ukraine said Saturday it encircled several thousand Russian troops near a key town in one of the four Moscow-held territories that President Vladimir Putin annexed a day earlier despite condemnation from Kyiv and the West. Ukraine's army said Saturday that it had "encircled" a Russian grouping near the eastern town, estimating it to be around 5,000 troops. The governor of the neighbouring Lugansk region, Sergiy Gaiday, said the surrounded soldiers have three options: "try to break through, all die together or surrender.
Of course, the annexation will likely sink any small remaining chance for peace talks between Moscow and Kyiv. Ukraine will not concede the territories and the West appears unlikely to drop its support for the besieged nation, with many leaders already pledging more aid. Some analysts think it unlikely Putin himself will be satisfied with these territories, and may intend the move as a stall to regroup and wait out Ukraine during the freezing winter months before redoubling his efforts to take down the Zelensky government.
Strategically, the areas claimed are important too. The eastern Donbas has been at the centre of a Russian land grab since 2014, before the full invasion, and could now be linked up with Crimea by the southern region of Kherson (a key hub of agricultural produce) and Zaporizhzhia (home to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant), giving Russia a wall of territory at the bottom of the country.
What will happen in the annexed territories?
Together, the territories span more than 90,000 square kilometres (the size of Hungary) and are still home to some 4 million people. With the announcement in Moscow, a wave of Ukrainians are now fleeing again – fearing that those trapped in parts occupied by Russia could be conscripted themselves to fight their own countrymen. Russian occupiers have been seizing property, killing, torturing and raping Ukrainians and, in some cases, forcibly conscripting them or “disappearing” them to Russia. Experts warn that the annexations might herald a large-scale, co-ordinated draft.
The Russian nuclear threat, explained
Pondering the unknowability of the unthinkable.This threat followed one he had made just days earlier when he called for a partial military mobilization: “In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.
Pavel Krasheninnikov, a senior Russian lawmaker appointed by Putin to co-ordinate the annexation, has said that people in the territories will acquire Russian citizenship after the oath of allegiance, and the rouble will become the legal tender. Russia has already installed its own leaders for the territories, who travelled to Moscow for the Red Square celebrations.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, has vowed to take back all of the territory under Russian control. Already since the annexation, the Ukrainian army has reclaimed a key city, Lyman, in eastern Donetsk used by Russian forces as a logistics and transport hub. And Ukraine is closing in on the city of Kreminna, just across the border in Luhansk.
“Over the past week, the number of Ukrainian flags in Donbas has increased,” Zelensky said. “There will be even more in a week’s time.” (In recent days, Russia has attacked a humanitarian aid convoy in the Ukrainian-controlled capital of Zaporizhzhia and sent suicide bomber drones to Zelensky’s home town, Krivyi Rih.)
Within hours of Russia’s announcement, Ukraine had also applied for fast-tracked NATO membership. Although the besieged nation will need the approval of all 30 member states to join the alliance, its bid so far has won the backing of nine central and eastern European NATO nations, as fears grow that Russia’s aggression will eventually expand beyond Ukraine. But, unlike neutral Sweden and Finland’s NATO bids, being at war complicates the case for Ukraine. Zelensky will still have to convince many nations wary of any confrontation with Russia. Yet the Ukrainian president says he will not let Putin rewrite the history and borders of their two nations, once close neighbours, through “murder, blackmail, mistreatment and lies”.
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