“People who live in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are becoming our citizens — forever,” Putin said at the chandeliered St George’s Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace — the same place where he declared in March 2014 that the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea was part of Russia.
The move to annex the territories, which make up nearly 15% of Ukraine, comes at a time when Russia almost had its back against the wall. It is now expected to change the course of the 7-month-long war.
For Putin, it could help legitimize his nuclear threats and offer a sense of victory which eluded him since the beginning of the invasion. But some Ukrainians living in the region have started to fear the worst.
Here’s why Putin annexed the 4 Ukrainian regions & what it means for the war:
The annexation of the 4 regions adds a degree of legitimacy to Putin’s nuclear threats, which were earlier denounced by Western experts as brinkmanship.
During the ceremony to officially announce the annexation, Putin chillingly vowed to protect the newly annexed regions by “all available means.”
Though he did not drop any fresh nuclear warnings, Putin also said that US had set a precedent when it had dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945.
The message was painfully clear: any attack on the newly annexed regions would be construed as an attack on Russia. This would give Putin enough reasons to use any means available in Russia’s vast arsenal, including nuclear weapons. Just like he said.
Even earlier, Putin had said that his nuclear threat was not a bluff.
His top associate, Dmitry Medvedev, said earlier this week that Russia has the right to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine if Kyiv threatens Russian statehood.
Experts feel the annexation signals the onset of a “new and highly dangerous phase” in the war, one that could escalate to the use of nuclear weapons for the first time in 77 years.
Even as Putin was proudly proclaiming the annexed territories on Friday, Russian forces in one of the four regions were on the brink of being encircled by Ukrainian troops.
On Saturday, Ukrainian troops entered the city of Lyman and claimed that they have surrounded thousands of Russian soldiers. This only shows how tenuous Russia’s grip is on some of the territories it is claiming.
In the last few weeks, Ukraine managed to claw back large swathes of its territory and triggered a Russian retreat with the help of advanced weapons supplied by the West.
Against this backdrop, a pomp-filled Kremlin ceremony and promises that Moscow would triumph in its “special military operation” help Putin divert attention from the possibility of facing a potentially serious military reversal.
Former Kremlin speechwriter-turned-political analyst Abbas Gallyamov linked Russia’s reversals in the war with the annexation push.
“It looks like an attempt to respond somehow, and it looks quite pathetic. Ukrainians are doing something, taking steps in the real material world, while the Kremlin is building some kind of virtual reality, incapable of responding in the real world,” he said.
A victory of sorts
“Victory will be ours,” President Putin said on Friday as thousands of Russians gathered on Moscow’s Red Square to celebrate the annexation.
“Russia not only opens the doors of her home to these people, she opens her heart. Welcome home!” he said, prompting chants of “Russia! Russia!” from the flag-waving crowd in the vast square.
Friday’s show and tell by Russia was clearly dominated by the theme of victory. That’s because victory is exactly what has eluded Putin in the last 7 months.
What was supposed to be a swift capture of Kyiv turned into a long-drawn-out battle that has been going on for 7 months with both the countries exhausting their manpower as well as resources.
Far from capturing Kyiv, Russia found itself facing stiff resistance from the Ukrainian troops who were bolstered by a sense of nationalism and a constant supply of Western arms.
Since Putin was left with no choice after his February 22 invasion, he had to recalibrate his war goals to focus on the eastern Ukrainian region where the referendums took place last month.
Thus, the formal annexation of the 4 territories has given Putin a sense of accomplishment that he desperately needed these past few weeks.
If not a complete takeover, Putin would be happy to accept 15% of the country’s territory. But whether or not Russia manages to hold out in the face of a tough Ukrainian advance remains to be seen.
Pitting Ukrainians against Ukrainians
The annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia has opened up the possibility for Putin to call for conscription.
According to reports, Ukrainian authorities believe that Russia will try to mobilise young men in the occupied areas to fight against Ukraine.
This has already happened in parts of eastern Ukraine under Russian control since 2014, particularly Crimea.
Russian soldiers have told dozens of men aged 18 to 35 that there is a ban on letting them leave, according to older men who have successfully crossed, as well as two NGOs involved in helping people evacuate and local Telegram groups, the Guardian reported.
Earlier, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy told citizens in the occupied territories to hide from mobilisation by “any means”.
Russia might also consider a call-up following the scare triggered by Putin’s mobilization call last week.
Over 194,000 Russian citizens have already fled to neighboring Georgia, Kazakhstan and Finland — most often by car, bicycle or on foot — since Putin announced a partial mobilization of reservists.
In Russia, the vast majority of men under age 65 are registered as reservists.
(With inputs from agencies)