Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday announced the annexation of four occupied regions of Ukraine.
Putin's announcement marks a sharp escalation and a critical moment of the Ukraine War, which began on February 24 when he ordered the invasion of Ukraine — dubbed as a special military operation.
The four regions are Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in southern Ukraine. These regions amount of 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory and together with Crimea, which Putin annexed in 2014, Russia now claims 20 per cent of Ukrainian territory as its own.
Putin announces the annexation of 15% of Ukraine.People in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson & Zaporozhye become our citizens forever. We'll defend our land with all available forces & means, he says. Including Crimea, roughly 20% of Ukrainian territories (pre-2014) are now with Russia. pic.twitter.com/VrmLP0ir25— Stanly Johny (@johnstanly) September 30, 2022
However, the annexation is not as simple and final as Putin portrays it to be. Firstly, Russia does not control the four annexed regions in their entirety. Secondly, Russian forces are performing poorly and Ukrainian are forces are on the offensive, including in the regions that have been annexed.
Putin's announcement of annexation came in the midst of Russian mobilisation of around 3,00,000 soldiers to be pressed into the Ukraine War. Putin expects these soldiers to hold off the the Ukrainian advances and, in future, launch fresh offensives. But with little training and dwindling arms reserves, the effectiveness of such an approach is uncertain.
Here we explain the Putin's reasoning behind the annexation, the current status of the Ukraine War, and how Putin has made the war more dangerous.
Ukraine continues its counter-offensive
Ukrainian forces launched a counter-offensive in early September in Eastern Ukraine. In the ongoing push, the Ukrainian forces have liberated several towns and large swathes of land held by Russians for months.
The liberated towns include key Russian military and logistics hubs such as Izyum. Currently, major fighting is concentrated around the city of Lyman in Eastern Ukraine — see the map below. Fighting has also been reported at Klynove and Pokrovske towns in Eastern Ukraine.
"Ukrainian forces will likely capture or encircle Lyman within the next 72 hours. Russian forces continued to withdraw from positions around Lyman on September 30 as Ukrainian forces continued to envelop Russian troops in the area," said think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in their daily update of the Ukraine War on Saturday.
ISW further reported that Russia is expected to redeploy soldiers in the region to bolster their defences.
"Russian authorities will likely redeploy personnel from border regions to areas in Ukraine as Russian efforts to advance and Ukrainian counteroffensives shift over time," said ISW.
"Ukraine is about to encircle Lyman. It would be a serious setback for Russia. It could also support Ukrainian attacks on Lysychansk, one of the largest cities Russia captured early in the invasion," reported The New York Times journalist Marco Hernandez.
Russian forces have backs to the wall
Russian military has performed poorly throughout the conflict and, as a result, Putin's objectives have changed and failed throughout the conflict.
Initially, the objective was to rapidly cut through Ukraine, capture capital Kyiv, and overthrow President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. However, the objective was amended in the first few weeks as Russian forces failed to capture Kyiv, though the they occupied areas around the capital.
Russian forces withdrew from the north and area around Kyiv and redeployed to the country's east. The amended objective was to "liberate" the country's eastern Donbas region, comprising Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
With stunning Ukrainian victories in the counter-offensive in recent weeks, even this objective appears to be failing.
Rather than going on an offensive, Russian forces are now struggling to maintain defensive lines and hold off Ukrainian advances. The hope is pinned on the fresh induction of 3,00,000 soldiers being mobilised at the orders of Putin. However, it's not believed to be helpful as these soldiers would likely lack the training and equipment to face the Ukrainian forces which are armed to teeth with Western weaponry and are assisted by Western intelligence and are battle-hardened from seven months of combat.
Besides unprecdedented Western military and intelligence support, there is another factor behind the Ukrainian resistance so far — the resolve to defend their country and their preparedness. Putin also undermined the Ukrainian resolve to defend their land and their preparedness. He overlooked the fact that Ukraine had been preparing for an invasion of this kind since 2014 when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea.
For months, Russia has been waging a 'war of attrition' in eastern and southern Ukraine. Such an approach refers to attempts at wearing down the enemy by constant barrage, pushing them to the point of collapse where they are out of people or resources. Russia has been pounding Ukrainian territories —including civilian houses, train stations, and critical infrastrture such as dams and power stations— with missiles and artillery for months to the point that its reserves are nearing exhaustion. But Ukrainian resolve to defend and fight has held through this attrition campaign.
This exhaustion of Russian war-waging reserves is most recently evidend through the use of a long-range air defence missile for a ground attack.
The British Ministry of Defence said, "Russia’s stock of such missiles is highly likely limited and is a high-value resource designed to shoot down modern aircraft and incoming missiles, rather than for use against ground targets. Its use in ground attack role has almost certainly been driven by overall munitions shortages, particularly longer-range precision missiles.
"Russia is expending strategically valuable military assets in attempts to achieve tactical advantage and in the process is killing civilians it now claims are its own citizens."
Putin hasty annexation complicates, worsenes peace efforts
Putin annexed occupied Ukrainian territories in haste, which would make it difficult for the Russians to govern those territories.
The ISW noted, "Putin likely rushed the annexation of these territories before making even basic administrative decisions on boundaries and governance. Russian officials have therefore not set clear policies or conditions for proper administration.
"Organising governance for these four forcibly annexed oblasts would be bureaucratically challenging for any state after Russian forces systematically killed, arrested, or drove out the Ukrainian officials who previously ran the regional administrations."
Experts have highlighted that Putin has sunk the Ukraine War into very critical and uncertain waters as his bets are dangerous.
Notably, even though Putin has annexed the four regions of Ukraine, Russia does not exercise complete control over these regions, and continued Ukrainian thrust threatens further loss of territory every day. While Russia controls most of the Luhansk and Kherson regions, it only controls about 60 per cent of the Donetsk region and a large chunk of the Zaporizhzhia region.
Putin's reasoning is that, by declaring these regions as Russian territory, he can equate the presence of Russian soldiers in these territories and Ukrainian thrust in these areas as an attack on Russia and Russian sovereignty. This would enable Putin to deploy more troops and resources which a limited military campaign would not allow — formally, the Ukraine War is still a 'special military operation', not a full-fledged war.
Putin has vowed to defend the annexed territories by "all available means", which is understood as a threat to use nuclear weapons. It's feared that Putin might order tactical nuclear weapons —short-scale weapons— or mobilise them to press Ukraine to halt operations or withdraw.
"Putin renewed his attempt to compel Ukraine to negotiate a ceasefire by again threatening to use tactical nuclear weapons. He is likely aiming to scare the West into pressuring Ukraine into a ceasefire, which he will use to rearm," noted ISW in its latest assesment.
Moreover, Putin has also effectively ended the scope of any peace talks with Ukraine as he has declared the annexed regions as "foreover" Russian, meaning he would never agree to hand them back and Zelenskyy would also never understandably agree to cede them.
"Putin has effectively made any negotiations with Ukraine impossible. Since the occupied territories are now 'part' of Russia and will, according to him, remain so forever, any chance of a compromise involving territorial concessions has turned to zero," noted Alexander Motyl, a Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University.
Motyl also said that Putin has worsened chances of peace by any successor. He explores a scenario in which Ukrainian forces liberate occupied eastern Ukraine and make major thrusts in Zaporizhzhya and Crimea in the south, Putin will likely not survive such a humiliating defeat. But his successor would still not be able to make peace because of his misdeeds.
"His successors may very well want to conclude peace by officially agreeing to cede some territory. But the Russian Constitution won’t let them, as it has no provisions for such an eventuality. This means that the war will continue, sanctions will remain in place, and Russia’s transformation into a third-world country with a lousy army and the bomb will continue apace," said Motyl.
What's the road ahead for Ukraine War?
The road ahead in Ukraine is uncertain but surely dangerous as both Ukraine and Russia are hardening their positions.
In his own words, Putin's annexation is a point of no return. Ukraine, on its part, is continuing with the counter-offensive with the collective might of the West backing it.
However, the shadow of a nuclear war looms over Ukraine and the West as Putin is with its back to the wall and is repetedly signalling at its usage.
Zelenskyy has said he is accelerating Ukraine's membership of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Ukraine's potential membership of NATO is one of Putin's red lines and justifications for the ongoing war.
In the scenario that Ukraine joins NATO, the world would be in its biggest military confrontation since World War Two —akin to another world war— as NATO functions on the principle of collective defence, which means that an attack on one NATO member will be an attack on all members and all the countries will then be party to the war. The United States or the West would not want such a situaion. They are supporting Ukraine but have clarified multiple times that their soldiers will not fight Russia.
Another explanation is that Putin is lingering his finger over the nuclear launch buttons and raising the stakes to end the Western support of Ukraine with the theat of stopping gas supplies in the coming winter. Ukraine on its own is not expected to hold off the Russians.
"Putin has signaled for months that a Russian gas cut-off of Europe is to encourage the West to cease supporting Ukraine and push it to negotiate. This will peak in the coming winter. As temperatures drop and heating bills in Europe rise, Putin is gambling he can still win, or at least hold his conquered gains," notes Robert E Kelly, an international relations expert at Pusan National University.
Kelly adds that Putin's gamble is that while his threat of gas cut-off reduces the Western resolve to support Ukraine through the winters, his fresh mobilisation of 3,00,000 soldiers would hold off any Ukrainian thrusts.
Such an appraoch is likely to fail, says Kelly, noting that gas cut-off would not be effective if winter is not that cold in Europe. If that happens, then Ukrainians would launch an offensive in 2023 summer and its forces would be better equipped by then.
"If this risky series of bets fail –which is likely– Putin is looking at a major Ukrainian offensive, a serious Russian strategic defeat, and national and personal humiliation...Embarrassed and fearful, Putin then might finally reach for the nuclear option," says Kelly.