Russia’s new land grab in Ukraine is an act of geopolitical piracy that will make war more dangerous, add new risks to the West’s strategic calculations and pose a long-term challenge to international law.
President Vladimir Putin is expected to preside over a Kremlin ceremony this Friday to formalize a process of annexing four occupied regions, which will cut off thousands of kilometers of Ukraine’s agricultural and heavy industrial wealth.
In effect, the measure 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 much of the world will not accept it.
The absorption of Ukrainian regions, reminiscent of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, will not change the reality of a war that has backfired on Putin, inflicted a bloody tribute on his forces and is causing unusual dissent within Russia.
But it is a ploy – produced through what the West says are false referendums – that creates an alternate reality about the conflict and that will have several important consequences for Americans, for America’s future global power and for the cause of democracy, even if the war, seven months later, may seem to many Americans like a distant dispute, created out of old enmities on the edge of Europe.
- First, in the political fantasy world invented by Putin, annexations transform war from an offensive operation into a self-defense operation. This is because Moscow will now define these new possessions as part of a larger Russian territory, which has raised fears of an escalation of the war because Putin warned that he could use all weapons systems (including codes for nuclear weapons) to defend the state. Russian.
- This new dimension of the conflict could mean that the West’s steadfast support for Ukraine, which has made great strides in the East and South in recent weeks, carries a higher risk premium, given that there is no sign that Kiev’s forces will stop fight to restore control over the annexed districts, using billions of dollars in US weaponry and material.
- In the long run, the annexations will crystallize why the United States and its allies have been so adamant in helping Ukraine’s war effort. The war threatens to set a precedent for a larger and more powerful nation simply marching into a smaller nation and confiscating its territory based on spurious logic. This scenario is not just a threat to the fringes of Europe; it is a scenario that could emerge around the world and be replicated by other autocratic regimes. It represents a fundamental challenge to the rule of international law, if allowed to uphold. And it tests the principle of the post-World War II world led by the West, according to which free peoples have the right to choose their own national and political destinies.
US President Joe Biden underlined 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 consequences.
“This war aims to extinguish Ukraine’s right to exist as a state, simply and unequivocally, and Ukraine’s right to exist as a people,” Biden said. “Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you believe in, it shouldn’t – it should make your blood run cold.”
The annexations cover four regions – Donetsk and Luhansk, which are self-installed breakaway republics, and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, which have been controlled by Russian troops since shortly after the invasion in late February.
The Ukrainian government, the United States and their European allies have all rejected the notion that this land will henceforth be part of Russia.
“The United States will never, ever, ever recognize Russia’s claims to sovereign Ukraine territory,” Biden warned at a Pacific Islands summit in Washington on Thursday. “This so-called referendum was a farce – an absolute farce – and the results were fabricated in Moscow,” the President said, promising a new series of swift and severe punishments for Russia.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has already made it clear that the US will not set limits on where Ukraine’s forces can use US-made weapons, effectively responding to Moscow’s bluff on the implications of attacking what it now sees as part of a wider Russia. .
“Ukraine has the absolute right to defend itself throughout its territory, including to retake territory that has been illegally seized in one way or another by Russia,” Blinken said at a press conference on Tuesday.
“Because there is no change in the territory 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 recover the land that has been taken from them. We will continue to support them in this effort,” Blinken said.
Putin warned when he announced a partial mobilization last week, which caused thousands of would-be recruits to flee the country, that all the means at his disposal would be used to defend the territorial integrity of the motherland. This was widely regarded as a threat to use tactical nuclear weapons if the newly annexed regions were attacked. Such a scenario could test the red line recently set by Putin. But the threat of losing any newly annexed areas could also add to his own embarrassment for a war he needs to win in order to continue his strongman rule.
The United States says it has so far not detected any movements of Russian nuclear weapons. This includes tactical battlefield devices that may have a smaller footprint than the higher yield strategic long-range warheads that are the nuclear deterrents of the United States, Russia and other declared nuclear powers. Still, US intelligence officials told CNN that while Russia’s potential use of nuclear weapons is still considered unlikely, it cannot be definitively ruled out.
From abroad, hastily organized referendums in occupied areas of Ukraine look ridiculously amateurish and rushed. In a way, they are an example of Putin tripping over the West, in yet another display 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 broader effort to verify Western power and influence, telling the heads of the secret services of the former Soviet republics that “we are witnessing a difficult process of formation. of a more just world order”, and lamenting the fall of the former Soviet Union.
But the obviously illegitimate nature of the referendums also points to their true purpose – to create an impression of progress for Russians in their country and also a justification for the mobilization of thousands of reservists who can now be told they are being sent to the Ukraine to fight in defense of Russian territory.
In other circumstances, Putin’s annexations may have been seen as a potential way to save face from the conflict and a way for him to declare a measure of victory. But Ukraine said such measures meant there was no reason to negotiate with Moscow. And recent battlefield success and the flow of Western weapons — the US announced another billion-dollar package on Wednesday — means there is no strategic reason to stop fighting now.
The new Russian land grab is also likely to shore up support for Ukraine in the US Congress, at a time when there is some evidence that a potential Republican majority in the House after mid-autumn elections may be less interested in send billions of dollars in aid to Kiev – a factor that could influence Putin’s long-term strategy.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut on Thursday unveiled a draft resolution that would require Biden to immediately cut economic and military aid to any nation that recognizes Russian annexations.
Graham noted that the annexations were taking place as much of the United States is fixated on devastation in Florida in the wake of Hurricane Ian. Congress will likely be called upon to fund a massive cleanup and rebuilding effort in the days to come. But Graham, while noting that the storm was now affecting 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 is right abroad. So we are dealing with Hurricane Putin, for lack of a better word,” Graham said.
“He is trying to redraw the map of Europe, he is trying to do by force of arms what he cannot do by the political process.”