With Annexation Plans, Putin Escalates Battle of Wills With the West
President Vladimir V. Putin plans to carry out his threat on Friday to declare that some 40,000 square miles of eastern and southern Ukraine will become part of Russia, an illegal annexation denounced by the West, but a signal that the Russian leader is prepared to raise the stakes in the seven-month-old war against Ukraine.
It is not clear whether even Russia’s staunchest allies will recognize Mr. Putin’s move, and Russian forces only partly control the land he plans to claim. But by annexing the parts of Ukraine his troops still occupy and then framing his efforts as an existential fight for the survival of the Russian state, Mr. Putin can try to shift the focus of the war from his army’s frontline losses to a plane where he seems to feel most confident: a battle of wills with the West.
“He thinks he can win,” Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a phone interview from Moscow. “He is provoking an escalation of the war, transferring it to some new status.”
Responding to rising popular discontent over the draft he ordered last week, Mr. Putin personally and publicly directed senior security officials to send home people who had been wrongly drafted — a rare implicit admission that his government had stumbled badly.
“All mistakes must be corrected and prevented from happening in the future,” Mr. Putin said in televised remarks to his Security Council. “You need to figure all this out — without fuss, calmly but quickly, in detail and thoroughly.”
He did not mention his annexation plans, which came as Ukrainian forces are pressing ahead with attacks in the very regions Mr. Putin will declare are part of Russia. But he sought to portray himself as being on the right side of history, asserting in remarks earlier in the day that “the formation of a more just world order is taking place.”
“Unipolar hegemony is inexorably collapsing,” Mr. Putin said. “This is an objective reality that the West categorically refuses to accept.”
The Kremlin announced the annexation plans on Thursday, saying Mr. Putin would sign documents on the entry of new territories into the Russian Federation and give “a voluminous speech.”
The ceremony will be accompanied by a festive celebration. Just outside the Kremlin walls, workers were putting up billboards and a giant video screen on Thursday for what state media described as an open-air rally and concert on Friday “in support” of the “referendums” on joining Russia — fraudulent votes that were held in Russian-occupied Ukraine in recent days.
The planned pomp appeared to be aimed at winning public approval and support for the annexation.
Festivities aside, Mr. Putin’s declaration will signal a new and more dangerous phase of the war. Once he declares Ukrainian territory to be an inextricable part of Russia — a declaration that Russia’s rubber-stamp Parliament and constitutional court are expected to approve by next week — he will rule out any negotiations over that area’s future status, analysts said.
The State of the War
- Annexation Push: After sham referendums, President Vladimir V. Putin plans to declare that four occupied regions of Ukraine will become part of Russia, an illegal annexation denounced by the West, but a signal that the Russian leader is prepared to raise the stakes in war.
- Nord Stream Pipeline: Explosions under the Baltic Sea and the rupture of major natural gas pipelines from Russia to Germany appeared to be a deliberate attack, European officials said, exposing the vulnerability of the continent’s energy infrastructure. But a mystery remains: Who did it?
- The Eastern Front: The battle for the critical Donbas region in Ukraine’s east is now centered on two strategically important cities: Lyman and Bakhmut. The fighting is fierce as both Russian and Ukrainian forces race to claim new ground before winter sets in.
- Russia’s Draft: The Kremlin has acknowledged that its new military draft has been rife with problems — an admission that comes after protests have erupted across Russia, recruitment centers have been attacked and thousands of men leave the country.
And after going through with the annexation, Mr. Putin may also declare that any future Ukrainian military action there threatens Russian territorial integrity — a threat, he said last week, to which Russia’s nuclear-armed military may respond with “all the means at our disposal.”
“This is not a bluff,” he added.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Thursday condemned the Kremlin’s plans, saying they were part of “a futile effort to mask what amounts to a further attempt at a land grab in Ukraine.”
“To be clear,” he added, “the results were orchestrated in Moscow and do not reflect the will of the people of Ukraine. The United States does not, and will never, recognize the legitimacy or outcome of these sham referenda or Russia’s purported annexation of Ukrainian territory.”
The official choreography planned for Friday in Moscow echoes the festivities of March 18, 2014, when Mr. Putin annexed Crimea. On that day, he signed a treaty of accession with the Ukrainian peninsula’s Russian-installed leaders, delivered a defiant speech at the Kremlin, and then rallied Russians at an evening concert in Red Square.
But this time, the context is far more volatile and grave. While Russia captured Crimea without large-scale fighting, Mr. Putin’s annexation will signal an escalation of a war that has already killed tens of thousands. While most Russians cheered the annexation of Crimea, seeing it as a genuine part of Russia, there is little evidence that the broader public is convinced that the four Ukrainian regions now being annexed hold similar significance.
And while Russia had already taken over Crimea when the Kremlin decreed the annexation, Ukraine still holds much of two of the regions being annexed on Friday, Donetsk and Zaporizka. That raises a key question ahead of Mr. Putin’s Friday speech: Will he threaten to use devastating force to compel Ukraine to withdraw from what the Kremlin will characterize as Russian territory?
Ukraine gave no sign that threats by Mr. Putin would cause it to back down. In a speech late on Wednesday, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine reiterated his denunciation of the referendums and said he was working with foreign leaders to coordinate a strong international response.
“Our key task now is to coordinate actions with partners in response to sham referendums organized by Russia and all related threats,” Mr. Zelensky said.
In Russia, Friday’s fanfare will take place against the backdrop of Mr. Putin’s chaotic “partial mobilization” — the large-scale military draft that he announced on Sept. 21 and that has led to demonstrations, attacks on enlistment offices and tens of thousands of men trying to flee the country. Western experts are skeptical that the mobilization of conscripts will quickly be able to reverse Russia’s battlefield losses.
A poll published by the independent Levada Center on Thursday showed rising anxiety over the war among Russians — a conflict that much of the public had largely tuned out until Mr. Putin’s draft order last week. The poll found 56 percent of Russians saying they were “very alarmed” by events in Ukraine, up from 37 percent in August. Asked what they felt upon hearing of Mr. Putin’s draft order, 47 percent described “anxiety, fear, horror,” while only 27 percent said they felt pride.
But despite Mr. Putin’s setbacks on the battlefield and the domestic headwinds, Russian analysts said he appeared to still see a path to victory in the war — even though it was unclear how, exactly, he would define a victory.
Vasily Kashin, who specializes in military and political issues at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, said in a phone interview that he believed that the influx of conscripts could yet turn the tide in the war and allow Russia to go on the offensive in Ukraine by the winter. Russian troops might even take control of more key territory like the city of Odesa, he speculated, and precipitate the collapse of Mr. Zelensky’s government.
At the same time, Mr. Kashin said, the war was entering a “very dangerous period.” As the West sends Ukraine more weapons, he said, Mr. Putin would not accept losing control of the regions he is planning to annex on Friday, even if that meant using nuclear weapons and accepting the risk of nuclear escalation.
“We are passing a point of no return tomorrow,” Mr. Kashin said. “After this, we will not be able to refrain from defending these territories with all means, including nuclear weapons.”
Analysts and officials will be watching Mr. Putin’s speech closely on Friday for signals of how prepared he is to escalate the war. Mr. Kolesnikov, the Carnegie analyst, said that even in the upper crust of Russia’s elite, there was widespread anxiety and uncertainty over what would happen next.
“They don’t know what he will come up with tomorrow, and what they should themselves be thinking,” he said.