‘He thinks he can win’: With annexation plans, Putin escalates battle of wills with the West

Moscow: President Vladimir Putin plans to carry out his threat on Friday, Moscow time, to declare that some 64,000 square kilometres of eastern and southern Ukraine will become part of Russia, an illegal annexation denounced by the West, but a signal that the Russian leader is prepared to raise the stakes in the 7-month-old war against Ukraine.

It is not clear whether even Russia’s staunchest allies will recognise Putin’s move, and Russian forces only partly control the land he plans to claim.

But by annexing the parts of Ukraine his troops still occupy and then framing his efforts as an existential fight for the survival of the Russian state, Putin can try to shift the focus of the war from his army’s front-line losses to a plane where he seems to feel most confident: a battle of wills with the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin.Credit:AP

“He thinks he can win,” Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a phone interview from Moscow. “He is provoking an escalation of the war, transferring it to some new status.”

Responding to rising popular discontent over the draft he ordered last week, Putin personally and publicly directed senior security officials to send home people who had been wrongly drafted — a rare implicit admission that his government had stumbled badly.

“All mistakes must be corrected and prevented from happening in the future,” Putin said in televised remarks to his Security Council. “You need to figure all this out — without fuss, calmly but quickly, in detail and thoroughly.”

He did not mention his annexation plans, which came as Ukrainian forces are pressing ahead with attacks in the very regions Putin will declare are part of Russia. But he sought to portray himself as being on the right side of history, asserting in remarks earlier in the day that “the formation of a more just world order is taking place.”

“Unipolar hegemony is inexorably collapsing,” Putin said. “This is an objective reality that the West categorically refuses to accept.”

The Kremlin announced the annexation plans Thursday, saying Putin would sign documents on the entry of new territories into the Russian Federation and give “a voluminous speech.”

The ceremony will be accompanied by a festive celebration. Just outside the Kremlin walls, workers were putting up billboards and a giant video screen Thursday for what state media described as an open-air rally and concert Friday “in support” of the “referendums” on joining Russia — fraudulent votes that were held in Russian-occupied Ukraine in recent days.

The planned pomp appeared to be aimed at winning public approval and support for the annexation.

Festivities aside, Putin’s declaration will signal a new and more dangerous phase of the war. Once he declares Ukrainian territory to be an inextricable part of Russia — a declaration that Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament and constitutional court are expected to approve by next week — he will rule out any negotiations over that area’s future status, analysts said.

And after going through with the annexation, Putin may also declare that any future Ukrainian military action there threatens Russian territorial integrity — a threat, he said last week, to which Russia’s nuclear-armed military may respond with “all the means at our disposal.”

“This is not a bluff,” he added.

Cars queuing toward the border crossing at Verkhny Lars between Russia and Georgia, leaving Chmi, North Ossetia – Alania Republic, in Russia.Credit:AP

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday condemned the Kremlin’s plans, saying they were part of “a futile effort to mask what amounts to a further attempt at a land grab in Ukraine”.

“To be clear,” he added, “the results were orchestrated in Moscow and do not reflect the will of the people of Ukraine. The United States does not, and will never, recognise the legitimacy or outcome of these sham referenda or Russia’s purported annexation of Ukrainian territory.”

Ukraine gave no sign that threats by Putin would cause it to back down. In a speech late Wednesday, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine reiterated his denunciation of the referendums and said he was working with foreign leaders to coordinate a strong international response.

A woman and her children cross a street, with a huge poster reading ‘With Russia forever!’ in the background in Luhansk, Luhansk People’s Republic controlled by Russia-backed separatists, eastern Ukraine.Credit:AP

“Our key task now is to coordinate actions with partners in response to sham referendums organised by Russia and all related threats,” Zelensky said.

In Russia, Friday’s fanfare will take place against the backdrop of Putin’s chaotic “partial mobilisation” — the large-scale military draft that he announced September 21 and that has led to demonstrations, attacks on enlistment offices and tens of thousands of men trying to flee the country. Western experts are sceptical that the mobilisation of conscripts will quickly be able to reverse Russia’s battlefield losses.

A poll published by the independent Levada Centre on Thursday showed rising anxiety over the war among Russians — a conflict that much of the public had largely tuned out until Putin’s draft order last week. The poll found 56 per cent of Russians saying they were “very alarmed” by events in Ukraine, up from 37 per cent in August. Asked what they felt upon hearing of Putin’s draft order, 47 per cent described “anxiety, fear, horror,” while only 27 per cent said they felt pride.

But despite Putin’s setbacks on the battlefield and the domestic headwinds, Russian analysts said he appeared to still see a path to victory in the war — even though it was unclear how, exactly, he would define a victory.

Vasily Kashin, who specialises in military and political issues at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, said in a phone interview that he believed that the influx of conscripts could yet turn the tide in the war and allow Russia to go on the offensive in Ukraine by the winter. Russian troops might even take control of more key territory like the city of Odesa, he speculated, and precipitate the collapse of Zelenskyy’s government.

At the same time, Kashin said, the war was entering a “very dangerous period.” As the West sends Ukraine more weapons, he said, Putin would not accept losing control of the regions he is planning to annex Friday, even if that meant using nuclear weapons and accepting the risk of nuclear escalation.

“We are passing a point of no return tomorrow,” Kashin said. “After this, we will not be able to refrain from defending these territories with all means, including nuclear weapons.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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