With annexation plans, Putin escalates battle of wills with the West

President Vladimir V. Putin plans to carry out his threat on Friday to declare some 40,000 square miles of eastern and southern Ukraine to become part of Russia, an illegal annexation denounced by the West, but a sign that the Russian leader is ready to raise the stakes of the seven-month war against Ukraine.

It’s unclear whether even Russia’s staunchest allies will recognize Putin’s move, and Russian forces only partially control the land he plans to claim. But by annexing the parts of Ukraine still occupied by his troops and then framing his efforts as an existential struggle for the survival of the Russian state, Putin may seek to shift the focus of the war from losses on the front lines of his army to a flat one. where he seems most confident: a battle of wills with the West.

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

In response to growing popular discontent over the draft he ordered last week, Putin personally and publicly ordered top security officials to send people who had been improperly recruited home, 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 have to solve all this, smoothly, calmly but quickly, in detail and thoroughly.”

He did not mention his annexation plans, which have come as Ukrainian forces continue attacks in the very regions that Putin will declare to be part of Russia. But he tried to portray himself as being on the right side of history, stating in comments earlier in the day that “the formation of a more just world order is taking place.”

“The 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 on 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 put up billboards and a giant video screen on Thursday for what state media described as a rally and open-air concert on Friday “in support” of “referendums” to join to Russia: Fraudulent votes that were held in Russian-occupied Ukraine in recent days.

The planned pageantry seemed to be aimed at winning public approval and support for annexation.

Aside from the festivities, Putin’s statement will signal a new and more dangerous phase of the war. Once he declares the Ukrainian territory an inseparable part of Russia, a declaration Russia’s Parliament and Constitutional Court are expected to approve next week, it will rule out any negotiations on the future status of that area, analysts said.

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

“This is not a bluff,” he added.

US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Thursday condemned the Kremlin’s plans, saying they were part of “a futile effort to mask what amounts to a new attempted 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, recognize the legitimacy or the outcome of these bogus referendums or Russia’s alleged annexation of Ukrainian territory.”

The official choreography scheduled for Friday in Moscow echoes the festivities of March 18, 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea. On that day, he signed an accession treaty with Russian-installed leaders on the Ukrainian peninsula, delivered a defiant speech in the Kremlin, and then rallied Russians at a nightly concert in Red Square.

But this time, the context is much more volatile and serious. While Russia captured Crimea without large-scale fighting, Putin’s annexation will signal an escalation of a war that has already killed tens of thousands. While most Russians applauded the annexation of Crimea, seeing it as a genuine part of Russia, there is little evidence that the general public is convinced that the four Ukrainian regions now being annexed are of similar significance.

And while Russia had already seized Crimea by the time the Kremlin decreed the annexation, Ukraine still owns much of two of the regions that were annexed on Friday, Donetsk and Zaporizka. That raises a key question ahead of Putin’s Friday speech: Will he threaten to use devastating force to force Ukraine to withdraw from what the Kremlin will characterize as Russian territory?

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

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

In Russia, Friday’s fanfare will take place against the backdrop of Putin’s chaotic “partial mobilization” — the large-scale military draft he announced on September 21 that has sparked demonstrations, attacks on enlistment offices and scores of of thousands of men trying to flee the country. Western experts are skeptical that the mobilization of recruits can quickly reverse Russia’s battlefield losses.

A poll published by the independent Levada Center on Thursday showed growing anxiety about war between the Russians, a conflict that much of the public had largely ignored until Putin’s draft order last week. The poll found that 56 percent of Russians said they were “very alarmed” by developments in Ukraine, up from 37 percent in August. When asked how they felt upon learning of Putin’s draft order, 47 percent described “anxiety, fear, horror,” while only 27 percent said they were proud.

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

Vasily Kashin, who specializes in military and political issues at the Moscow Higher School of Economics, said in a telephone interview that he believed the influx of recruits could still turn the tide of the war and allow Russia to go on the offensive in Ukraine. . for the winter. Russian troops could even take control of more key territory like the city of Odessa, he speculated, and hasten the collapse of the Zelensky government.

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

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

Analysts and officials will closely watch Putin’s speech on Friday for signs of how prepared he is to escalate the war. Mr. Kolesnikov, the Carnegie analyst, said that even in the top layer of the Russian elite, there was widespread anxiety and uncertainty about what would happen next.

“They don’t know what will come to their minds tomorrow and what they should be thinking themselves,” he said.