Russia’s new land grab in Ukraine is an act of geopolitical piracy that will make the war more dangerous, add new risk to the West’s strategic calculations and deal a long-term challenge to the international rule of law.
President Vladimir Putin presided over a Kremlin ceremony Friday to formalize an annexation process of four occupied regions that will slice away thousands of miles of Ukraine’s heavy industrial and agricultural wealth.
In effect, the move amounts to stealing territory from a sovereign power and declaring it part of Russia after an unprovoked invasion – a clear violation of international law and one reason why much of the world will not accept it.
The Russian leader made the announcement with a new rhetorical blast against the United States and its allies, underscoring how he sees the war in Ukraine as part of a wider project to reverse what he sees as the humiliations caused by the fall of the Soviet Union.
“The West has been looking for and continues to look for a new chance to weaken and destroy Russia, which they have always dreamed of splitting our state, pitting peoples against each other,” Putin said.
“They are simply haunted by the fact that there is such a great country as Russia.”
The absorption of the Ukrainian regions, which recalls the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, will not change the reality of a war that has backfired on Putin, inflicted a bloody toll on his forces and is stoking unusual dissent inside Russia.
But it is a ruse – produced through what the West says are sham referendums – that creates an alternative reality about the conflict that will have several important consequences for Americans, future US global power and the cause of democracy, even if the war, seven months on, may feel to many Americans like a faraway dispute brewed from ancient enmities on the edge of Europe.
- First, in the political fantasy world concocted by Putin, the annexations turn the war from an offensive operation into one of self-defense. That’s because Moscow will now define these new possessions as part of larger Russian territory, which has raised fears of an escalation of the war because Putin has warned he could use all weapons systems (code for nuclear arms) to defend the Russian state.
- This new dimension to the conflict may mean that the West’s staunch support for Ukraine, which has made major advances in the east and the south in recent weeks, comes with a higher risk premium given that there’s no sign Kyiv’s forces will stop fighting to restore control over the annexed districts using billions of dollars in US weaponry and materiel.
- In the longer term, the annexations will crystalize the reason why the United States and its allies have been so adamant about helping Ukraine’s war effort. The war threatens to enshrine a precedent of a bigger, powerful nation simply marching into a smaller one and seizing its territory on a spurious rationale. That scenario is not just a threat at the fringes of Europe; it is one that could arise around the world and be replicated by other autocratic regimes. It represents a fundamental challenge to the international rule of law if allowed to stand. And it tests the principle of the Western-led post-World War II world that free peoples have the right to choose their own national and political destinies.
President Joe Biden made exactly this point during his speech to the United Nations General Assembly this month when he argued that nations should not be allowed to pursue imperial ambitions without consequence.
“This war is about extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state, plain and simple, and Ukraine’s right to exist as a people,” Biden said. “Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you believe, that should not – that should make your blood run cold.”
The annexations cover four regions – Donetsk and Luhansk, which are self-styled breakaway republics, and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, which have been controlled by Russian troops since soon after the invasion in late February.
The Ukrainian government, the United States and its European allies have all rejected the notion that this land will henceforth be part of Russia.
“The United States will never, never, never recognize Russia’s claims on Ukraine sovereign territory,” Biden warned at a Pacific Islands summit in Washington on Thursday. “This so-called referenda was a sham – an absolute sham – and the results were manufactured in Moscow,” the President said, promising a new range of swift and severe punishments for Russia.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has already made clear the US will establish no limits on where Ukraine’s forces can use US-made weapons, effectively calling Moscow’s bluff about the implications of attacking what they now consider to be part of wider Russia.
“Ukraine has the absolute right to defend itself throughout its territory, including to take back the territory that has been illegally seized in one way or another by Russia,” Blinken said at a news conference on Tuesday.
“Because there is no change at all in the territory that is being annexed by the Russians as a matter for us or for the Ukrainians, the Ukrainians will continue to do what they need to do to get back the land that has been taken from them. We will continue to support them in that effort,” Blinken said.
Putin warned when he announced a partial mobilization last week, which caused thousands of would-be conscripts to flee the country, that every means at his disposal would be used to defend the territorial integrity of the homeland. That was widely seen as a threat to use tactical nuclear weapons if newly annexed regions come under attack. Such a scenario could test Putin’s newly established red line. But the threat of losing any newly annexed areas could also increase his own embarrassment over a war he needs to win in order to continue his strongman rule.
The United States says that it has so far not detected any movements of Russian nuclear weapons. This includes tactical battlefield devices that could have a smaller footprint than higher-yield long-range strategic warheads that make up the nuclear deterrents of the United States, Russia and other declared nuclear powers. Still, US intelligence officials have told CNN that while Russia’s potential use of nuclear weapons is still seen as unlikely it cannot be definitively ruled out.
From overseas, the hastily organized referendums in occupied areas of Ukraine look laughably amateurish and hurried. In a sense, they are an example of Putin trolling the West in yet another show of contempt for international law and the idea of democracy. Putin left no doubt on Thursday that he considers the war in Ukraine part of a wider effort to check Western power and influence, telling intelligence chiefs from former Soviet republics that “we are witnessing a difficult process of forming a more just world order,” and bemoaning the fall of the former Soviet Union.
But the obviously illegitimate nature of the referendums also point to their true purpose – creating an impression of progress to Russians back home and also a justification for the mobilization of thousands of reservists who can now be told they are being sent to Ukraine to fight to defend Russian territory.
In other circumstances, Putin’s annexations may have been seen as a potential face-saving way out of the conflict and a way for him to declare a measure of victory. But Ukraine has said such moves mean that there are no grounds for negotiation with Moscow. And recent battlefield success and the flow of Western weapons – the US announced another $1 billion package on Wednesday – mean that there is no strategic reason to stop fighting now.
The new Russian land grabs will also likely firm up support for Ukraine in the US Congress at a time when there are some indications that a potential Republican majority in the House after this fall’s midterm elections may be less keen on sending billions of dollars in aid to Kyiv – a factor that may influence Putin’s long-term strategy.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut on Thursday unveiled a draft resolution that would require Biden to immediately cut off economic and military aid to any nation that recognized Russian annexations.
Graham noted that the annexations were occurring while much of the United States is fixated on the devastation in Florida in the wake of Hurricane Ian. Congress will likely be called upon to fund a massive clean-up and rebuilding effort in the days to come. But Graham, while pointing out that the storm was now bearing down on his state, warned that lawmakers needed to “do two things at once.”
“We have to help our friends and neighbors here at home but we also have to stand up for what’s right abroad. So we are dealing with Hurricane Putin, for the lack of a better word,” Graham said.
“He’s trying to rewrite the map of Europe, he’s trying to do by force of arms what he can’t do to the political process.”