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Vladimir Putin makes the war in Ukraine even more dangerous by annexing 15 percent of Ukrainian territory

What Friday’s land grab really means.

On Friday, in an announcement paired with an elaborately staged celebration in Moscow’s Red Square, Russian President Vladimir Putin formally announced the annexation of four oblasts, or provinces, of Ukraine, comprising some 40,000 square miles and 15 percent of the country’s territory.

“This is the will of millions of people,” Putin said Friday, speaking in the Grand Kremlin Palace. “This is their right. Their inalienable right.” The residents of the four provinces, he said, “are becoming our citizens — forever.” His annexation complete — rhetorically at least — the Russian leader called on Ukraine to negotiate.

But no matter what Putin says, unless you live in Russia itself, you probably don’t need to buy a new map.

But those places are at least under Russian control; the four provinces Putin welcomed into the Russian federation today are active battlefields. “Obviously this is an extension of that same policy, but it’s not going to work this time because the Ukrainians are fighting back,” Robert Orttung, a research professor at George Washington University’s Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, told Grid.

One of the most widely used definitions of a “state,” originally formulated by the German sociologist Max Weber, is that it is the entity which holds a monopoly on the use of force or violence in a given territory. By this standard, areas under the control of the Ukrainian military are clearly not part of the Russian state, no matter what Putin says.

Why would Putin bother with this gambit at all? While clearly a move born of desperation in response to internal criticism and Russia’s recent battlefield setbacks, there is a certain logic to it. That logic carries some clues about how Putin now views Russia’s goals and next steps in the war — including potentially raising concerns about the nuclear threat level.

Why annexation?

False claims of “genocide” against local Russian speakers by the Ukrainian government were a major facet of Putin’s justification for the original invasion, but what Russia actually gains by officially annexing these regions is less clear.

The annexation could also give the Russian military more leeway for how it uses the troops it has begun conscripting within its borders. According to Russian law (admittedly, not a law that has been consistently followed recently), conscripts can’t be sent outside Russia’s borders without at least four months of training. So rather than changing the law, Putin is simply changing the borders: defining the battlefields of Ukraine as being within Ukrainian territory.

More important than any material considerations, Putin may simply have felt the need to change the public narrative in Russia about this war. Now Putin can say that Russia has gained territory — and in the new narrative, that its forces there are fighting to hold onto the gains.

At a panel discussion hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace this week, senior fellow Alexander Baunov explained: “The annexation turns the offensive war into a defensive war for Russia’s borders. There’s almost something superstitious about this. Russia can lose some military expedition, but Russia always wins a war when it’s waged inside Russia. They’re trying to turn this war of aggression into something legitimate.”

The annexation taboo

Hence the secretary-general’s strongly worded condemnation of Putin’s “violation.”

In the rare cases they do happen, such attempts by countries to seize territory — think Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait or Argentina’s attempt to seize the Falkland Islands in 1982 — almost always meet with failure and a return to the status quo. Since the end of the Cold War and the breakup of Yugoslavia, the map of the world has remained remarkably static by historical standards.

Russia’s successful seizure of Crimea in 2014 was the exception that proves the rule: It had significant local support and was carried out before Ukraine, reeling from massive protests and the ouster of the country’s government, had a chance to react.

That land grab didn’t get much international support either, even among Russia’s ostensible friends. That year, only 11 countries voted against a U.S. resolution condemning the annexation in the U.N. General Assembly, with 58 abstentions. Today, only seven countries actually recognize Crimea as part of Russian territory: Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Afghanistan, North Korea, Syria and — only since last December — Belarus.

Perhaps in the early days of the war, if Russia had concentrated its forces on the Donbas rather than its ill-fated attempt to take Kyiv, there could have been a scenario in which Zelenskyy would have been forced to negotiate away some territory, at great political cost. Now, after all the atrocities committed by Russian forces, the level of Western support Kyiv is receiving and Ukraine’s recent battlefield successes, it’s almost impossible to imagine Ukraine voluntarily ceding any territory.

Looking forward, Nina Caspersen, a political scientist at the University of York who studies territorial conflict, worries that Russia’s land grabs could weaken the previously robust norm against territorial conquest. “It was already a worry that it was that the annexation of Crimea had significantly weakened it, and I guess that’s what we’re seeing now that that was indeed the case,” she told Grid. “And the worry is that could give some other states similar ideas.”

The road ahead

For the time being, annexation is unlikely to make a huge difference on the battlefield. Ukraine and its allies will not recognize Russia’s new self-declared borders, and the fight will continue.

Nukes or no, the annexation does provide a sense of Putin’s view of the war, more than seven months in. When the invasion began, Putin was vague about the actual goals of the “special military operation.” His calls to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians” seemed to suggest wholesale regime change, as did Russia’s ill-fated offensive against Kyiv.

But Putin now seems much more specific about what he considers an acceptable outcome: annex these regions and force Ukraine and the international community to live with it, even if they never recognize it. The good news for Ukraine and its international backers is that this is a much less expansive goal than the Russian president appeared to have seven months ago. The bad news is that now that he’s defined this goal so openly, it’s much harder to see how he backs down.

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