What to know about Russia’s plans to annex Ukrainian regions


Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees on Friday to annex four Ukrainian regions, in a major escalation of his war in Ukraine. The move — and the staged referendums that preceded it — were widely condemned as illegal under international law.

In a stridently anti-American speech at a ceremony in the Kremlin on Friday, Putin declared that residents of Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions would be “our citizens forever.”

The staged votes carried out ahead of Putin’s announcement were conducted at gunpoint or under other forms of duress, and Western officials panned them as a sham. Ukraine vowed to fight to reclaim all of its sovereign territory, as Western allies finalized plans to ramp up pressure on Moscow in response to the annexation.

The moves toward annexation came after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a partial military mobilization last week, sparking protests and prompting tens of thousands of Russian men to flee the country. The Kremlin’s announcements signaled a new willingness from Putin to escalate the seven-month war, after losing significant ground to Ukrainian counteroffensives in Ukraine’s northeast.

Analysts warn that annexing the territories could enable Moscow to label Ukrainian attacks on those regions as attacks on Russia itself, raising the threat of a retaliatory nuclear strike.

Here’s what we know about Russia’s annexation plans and their implications for Ukraine and its allies.

Putin illegally proclaims annexation of four Ukrainian regions at Moscow ceremony

What do we know about Russia’s plans to annex Ukrainian regions?

In near-synchronized announcements, Moscow-backed officials in four Ukrainian regions — Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — said last week that they would hold “referendums” from Sept. 23 to 27 on joining Russia. Putin quickly voiced his support.

Russia insisted the process and results were legitimate. But voting, which ended Tuesday, took place without credible international observers, and the entire process was under the control of the Russian government and occupying forces. Residents were visited in their homes and forced, sometimes at gunpoint, to check “yes” or “no” on joining Russia. Voting centers were also set up in schools, theaters and special polling stations.

Russian state media claimed that 99 percent of voters in Donetsk favored accession, as did 98 percent in Luhansk, 93 percent in Zaporizhzhia and 87 percent in Kherson, according to Tass. Altogether, the Russia-occupied regions make up nearly 15 percent of Ukraine’s total territory, according to the Institute for the Study of War. But Russia’s hold on the region remains tenuous — about a quarter of Zaporizhzhia is still in Kyiv’s hands.

After the staged vote, the leaders of pro-Russian administrations in the occupied territories traveled to Moscow to formally ask Putin to absorb the regions into Russia.

“People have made their choice, an unambiguous choice,” Putin said in his speech Friday, calling on Kyiv to “immediately cease hostilities” and pledging Russia would “ensure security” and “never betray” residents of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions. He then signed a series of accession treaties.

Parliamentary leaders in Russia said votes to absorb the four regions — mere formalities in the rubber-stamp legislature — are expected to take place early next week.

Kyiv slams staged referendum as Russian ‘propaganda show,’ vows retribution


Four regions

where staged

referendums

on joining Russia

were held

Area held

by Russia-

backed

separatists

since 2014

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

Control areas as of Sept. 28

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI’s Critical Threats Project

Ukrainian reclaimed territory

through counteroffensives

Four regions

where staged

referendums on

joining Russia

were held

Area held by

Russia-backed

separatists

since 2014

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

Control areas as of Sept. 28

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI’s Critical Threats Project

Ukrainian reclaimed territory

through counteroffensives

Four regions

where staged

referendums

were held on

joining Russia

Area held by

Russia-backed

separatists

since 2014

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

Sources: Institute for the Study of War

Russia’s occupation authorities have said for months that they would hold such “referendums.” But plans accelerated after Ukraine’s military victories this month. Separatist officials in eastern Ukraine pleaded this month for urgent measures that would allow Moscow to immediately annex the territories.

Moscow recognized the separatist enclaves as independent before the invasion in February, and Russian-backed authorities had already taken administrative measures — including switching to the Russian ruble and distributing Russian passports — to bring residents of occupied Ukraine closer to Russia. Annexation formalizes Moscow’s control.

The United States warned in July that Russia was taking steps toward annexing parts of Ukraine, and that Moscow’s plan would probably include calling “sham” votes.

“Russia is beginning to roll out a version of what you could call an annexation playbook,” White House spokesman John Kirby said at a news briefing.

That playbook was honed in Crimea, which Russia invaded and illegally annexed in 2014. The Black Sea peninsula had been part of independent Ukraine for more than two decades. The official result of the staged referendum held in Crimea in March 2014: 97 percent of voters allegedly backed joining Russia. Following the vote, Putin recognized Crimea as an independent state, and Crimea’s pro-Russian parliament formally applied to become part of Russia. Putin and Russia’s parliament then approved an accession treaty.

What is Moscow’s strategy?

The Kremlin’s speedy mobilization around annexation comes after Ukrainian counteroffensives reclaimed large swaths of territory in northeastern Ukraine that Russian forces had seized early in the war.

The staged referendums appeared to mark a “new phase of the war,” said Natalia Savelyeva, a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. “They’re signs that the Russian regime doesn’t feel very comfortable.”

Hard-liners in Russia have demanded a tougher approach to the war, and they cheered calls this week for annexation.

Russia’s military control over the regions it has occupied is shaky, and the sham referendums have been seen as a political tool to accomplish the military aim of securing Moscow’s hold.

The idea was to create the pretext of popular support to justify further military action, Savelyeva said. For Putin and his backers, the appearance of having legal authority to make decisions remains important.

Britain’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday that Russia’s leaders “almost certainly hope” that an annexation announcement will fuel support for the “special military operation,” at a time when Moscow’s “partial mobilization” has increased Russian opposition to the war.

The Russian men fleeing mobilization, and leaving everything behind

Some analysts raised the alarm that the referendums signaled Putin was willing to pursue an escalatory path.

Tatiana Stanovaya, an analyst with R.Politik political consultancy, said in a Telegram post that the votes constituted “preparation for a full-scale war,” and annexation, “an unequivocal ultimatum from Russia to Ukraine and the West: Either Ukraine retreats or nuclear war.”

Putin used the bulk of his speech Friday to rail against the West, making clear that he views the war in Ukraine as a broader conflict against the Western-backed international order.

In a not-so-veiled reference to Russia’s nuclear arsenal, Putin threatened Friday to defend annexed territories “with all available means.” Former president Dmitry Medvedev was more pointed: “Russia has the right to use nuclear weapons if necessary,” he wrote on his Telegram channel on Tuesday.

How have Ukraine and allies reacted?

Ukraine and Western countries have not recognized the annexation of Crimea, and they do not intend to recognize any absorption of other illegally annexed regions into Russia, either.

“Russia has been and remains an aggressor illegally occupying parts of Ukrainian land,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed to oust Russian forces and restore “normal life” to occupied regions. After Putin’s speech Friday, he announced Ukraine would apply for accelerated admission to NATO.

Ukraine’s NATO allies, meanwhile, blasted Russia’s apparent annexation and mobilization plans as escalatory. President Biden said Thursday the United States will “never, never, never” recognize Russia’s claims to Ukrainian territory.

The United Nations Security Council may vote Friday on a resolution introduced by the United States that condemns the annexations. Zelensky has called for Russia to be suspended from “all international organizations,” including the United Nations.

The European Union unveiled a new round of sanctions against Russia on Wednesday in response to the referendums. The package includes “sweeping new import bans on Russian products” that will cost Russia 7 billion euros ($6.8 billion) in revenue, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.

“We do not accept the sham referendum and any kind of annexation in Ukraine, and we’re determined to make the Kremlin pay for this further escalation,” von der Leyen said.

New sanctions announced by the Biden administration Friday target Russian government officials and family members. The Treasury and Commerce departments will increase sanctions for anyone who helps Russia’s annexation effort.

Canada will also sanction individuals and entities “complicit” in annexation attempts, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week.

Kyiv has requested tanks, longer-range missiles and other weaponry in response to Moscow’s threats of escalation. Zelensky accused Russia on Tuesday of carrying out “nuclear blackmail” and called for the West to take preventive action.

U.S. officials have indicated that the United States would continue to back the Ukrainian military if it tried to retake annexed land, and that an agreement that Ukraine would not strike Russian territory with U.S.-made weapons would not apply to illegally annexed areas. The Pentagon said Wednesday it would more than double its commitment of long-range rocket artillery systems for Ukraine.

Biden has warned Putin not to use a nuclear weapon. “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t,” he said on the CBS news show “60 minutes” earlier this month. “It would change the face of war unlike anything since World War II.”

“There are powerful incentives for Ukraine to continue to attack this territory,” said Dara Massicot, senior policy researcher at the Rand Corp. “The Russian military is at its weakest point right now.”

Robyn Dixon in Riga, Latvia, Natalia Abbakumova, Karina Tsui, Paul Sonne, Yasmeen Abutaleb and Karoun Demirjian in Washington, Emily Rauhala and Beatriz Rios in Brussels, and Annabelle Timsit in London contributed to this report.





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