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Putin’s desperate attempt to annex parts of Ukraine

“These are all just gestures made out of weakness because he’s losing on the ground.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, joins hands with Moscow-appointed heads of four Ukrainian regions, from left, Vladimir Saldo of Kherson, Yevgeny Balitsky of Zaporizhzhia, Denis Pushilin of Donetsk, and Leonid Pasechnik of Lugansk, at the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow on September 30, shortly after signing treaties formally annexing the four regions of Ukraine occupied by Russian troops.
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Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin formally declared four regions of Ukraine as part of Russia following sham referendums this week in eastern and southern Ukraine. Putin made the illegal decree as he lobbed even more threats against the United States and its allies, another potential escalation in the war in Ukraine and in Russia’s standoff with the West.

Putin moved to annex four regions of eastern and southern Ukraine — Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia — after officials in Russian-controlled territory staged an illegal vote on joining Russia. The Kremlin does not fully control any of these areas, and pollsters reportedly went door to door with armed soldiers in Russian-controlled zones, but Putin justified the decree by saying that it was done on behalf of the “will of millions of people.”

Ukraine, the United States, its allies, and the United Nations have condemned the bogus referendums and the annexation. In response, Ukraine formally applied for NATO membership. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called it “a decisive step for entire security of free nations.”

Zelenskyy had previously vowed to protect Ukrainians in those Russian-annexed territories, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Friday that “nothing changes for Ukraine: we continue liberating our land and our people, restoring our territorial integrity.“

Shortly after Putin’s address, the US announced new sanctions against Russia, including against more Russian military officials and against entities that support Russia and Belarus’s military sector. “Make no mistake: these actions have no legitimacy,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “The United States will always honor Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called Putin’s land grab “illegal and illegitimate.” But, he added, that Putin’s move was “the most serious escalation since the start of the war.”

Putin’s move was expected, but it still opens up a new and uncertain phase in the war in Ukraine. A Ukrainian counteroffensive is clawing back Russian-controlled territory and cities in the same areas that Putin just attempted to annex. These decrees are part of Putin’s larger effort to reset Russia’s faltering war effort with a partial military mobilization that prompted protests and sent thousands fleeing the country.

In his speech, Putin also escalated his nuclear threats against the West, warning that if Russia’s “territorial integrity is threatened Russia will use all the means at its disposal.” The annexation of these four Ukrainian territories also raises real questions as to how Putin will treat these contested regions, where Ukrainian forces are battling Russian troops with Western artillery and weapons.

“We will defend our land with all the powers and means at our disposal,” Putin said again on Friday, in a speech that accompanied the annexation ceremony.

And in that speech, Putin reiterated his threats against authorities in Kyiv and “their real masters in the West.” He made sweeping, paranoid proclamations that called Western elites the “enemy” who flouted international law. He also blamed the West for global food and energy crises, and insinuated they were responsible for the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines. “Sanctions were not enough for the Anglo-Saxons: they moved on to sabotage,” Putin said.

Putin’s antagonism and annexation actions are once again an attempt at escalation, although the threats do not necessarily match the realities on the ground, especially as Ukrainian forces partially surround Russian troops in Lyman, in eastern Donbas. “These are all just gestures made out of weakness because he’s losing on the ground,” said Kurt Volker, former US ambassador to NATO and distinguished fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

He accelerated the referendum, Volker added, “precisely because he knows [Russia] is going to lose more territory. He’s trying to find something to salvage out of this.”

Yet Putin under pressure, and acting from a position of weakness, is also a risk. Since Putin announced Russia’s military mobilization, he has sought to annex territories Russia doesn’t fully control, potentially sabotaged the Nord Stream pipelines, which run underneath the Baltic Sea, and intensified his grievance-filled rhetoric against the West. Putin, again, is trying to raise the stakes of the conflict, another potential attempt to weaken Western resolve and support for Ukraine — all while Russia continues to face setbacks.