Putin’s Desperate Gambit
A phony annexation doesn't hide that he's badly losing his illegal war.
WSJ (“Russia Announces Annexation of Four Regions of Ukraine“):
Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed occupied territories in Ukraine as part of the Russian Federation, blasting the U.S. and its allies as “satanic,” hinting at his willingness to use nuclear weapons, and signaling a sharp escalation in the war as Kyiv vowed to recover its occupied lands.
Bringing Russian-controlled Luhansk and areas of Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia under Moscow’s control after a series of disputed referendums is a pivotal part of the Russian leader’s war goals. It effectively provides Moscow a land bridge to Crimea, the peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014, which is home to its Black Sea fleet. Seizing Crimea represented the first action of its kind in Europe since the end of World War II, triggering Western sanctions against Russia and upending long-held assumptions about security on the continent.
Claiming the new territories intensifies the crisis in a way that could leave Mr. Putin short of viable off-ramps as the ground war begins to turn against Russia, analysts said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has already pledged to retake the occupied areas, driving Russian forces from lands that he says are rightfully Ukraine’s. On Friday he asked NATO to expedite his country’s application to join the security bloc, saying Ukraine was already a de facto ally of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, though U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Ukraine would have to follow the established process.
Western leaders, including President Biden, have been quick to condemn Mr. Putin’s move, however.
“He can’t seize his neighbor’s territory and get away with it. It’s as simple as that,” Mr. Biden said at the White House on Friday as the U.S. government announced fresh sanctions. “America is fully prepared with our NATO allies to defend every single inch of NATO territory. Every single inch. So, Mr. Putin: Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. Every inch.”
British Prime Minister Liz Truss earlier Friday said the U.K. will never accept the annexation of Ukrainian regions as Russian territory. “Putin cannot be allowed to alter international borders using brute force. We will ensure he loses this illegal war,” she said.
“None of this shows strength. It shows weakness,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said. “It is an admission that the war is not going to plan.”
Mr. Putin used the move as a set-piece event to show off what he said was Russia’s progress. “People who live in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, now they have become citizens forever,” Mr. Putin said in a televised address inside the Grand Kremlin Palace. “The choice was made and Russia will not betray this choice.”
YahooNews (“Putin’s ‘annexation’ announcement changes little on the ground in Ukraine“):
Even by his own fire-and-brimstone standards, Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed angry on Friday as he addressed hundreds of Russian parliamentarians and governors in St. George Hall in the Kremlin.
The event had been called so that Putin could triumphantly announce his latest gambit in Ukraine, the annexation of four regions of that country into the Russian Federation. But as he rattled off a litany of reasons as to why this land grab was necessary, the mood was more apocalyptic than jubilant.
The rules-based international order was a sinister Western design, he told his audience, one that was rooted in Russophobia. The West itself has “embraced Satanism,” forced drug addiction, gender ambiguity and “the organized hunts of people as if they’re animals” — the latter either a strange reference to American mass shootings or the popularity of Netflix’s “Squid Game.” Nevertheless, such a fallen civilization still had the wherewithal to try and colonize Russia and steal its precious natural resources, he continued before comparing the United States to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, accusing it of setting a “precedent” in being the only nation to use nuclear weapons. Then he quoted from his favorite Russian fascist philosopher, Ivan Ilyin: “I believe in the spiritual forces of the Russian people, their spirit — my spirit, its fate is my fate, its suffering is my grief, its flowering is my joy.”
A crowd in Red Square had gathered to watch the widely anticipated news broadcast on a Jumbotron, wave the Russian tricolor and herald the invasion as a new “holy war.” “We won’t care about the price,” they chanted in a tacit admission that the war in Ukraine was, in fact, costing Russia a great deal.
Following Putin’s theatrics, Ukraine announced it was applying for fast-track membership to NATO — exactly the contingency the Russian government has for years claimed it sought to avoid. However symbolic this declaration is (Ukraine’s accession is still a distant prospect), it deftly stole the international spotlight away from Putin.
Putin’s attempts to consolidate minimal Russian gains stand in marked contrast to the fact that his war of conquest is faltering, something even he subtly recognizes. Following his decree to gobble up four of Ukraine’s oblasts, he immediately suggested a “ceasefire” with Kyiv, which for weeks has been pressing the fight to the invaders.
Ukraine has continued its incredibly successful Kharkiv offensive by pushing across the Oskil River in an attempt to liberate the entirety of the oblast. Social media accounts have been overflowing with videos and pictures showing jubilant Ukrainian soldiers hoisting their flag’s blue-and-gold colors over recently liberated settlements. On Thursday, Ukrainian forces were said to have encircled the strategic city of Lyman in Donetsk, one of the oblasts Putin thinks is now going to be part of Russia. A few thousand Russian forces there have been cut off from the north, west and south, with only a narrow means of escaping eastward from advancing Ukrainian columns, according to pro-Russian military bloggers, whose pessimistic assessments are always more fact-based than anything emanating from the Russian Ministry of Defense. There are further indications that Lyman may be completely surrounded by Ukrainian forces.
For the Ukrainians, taking Lyman would not only secure the northern approach to the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, both also in Kyiv’s hands, but it would also enable them to push toward retaking Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, the twin cities Russia captured in June after months of grueling attritional warfare.
Recapturing Lyman would also allow the Ukrainians to potentially outflank the Russian soldiers who have been attempting to sack the city of Bakhmut for several weeks. The U.S.- and EU-sanctioned Igor Girkin, a former FSB officer implicated in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014, has been complaining loudly to anyone who will listen that Russian forces near Bakhmut are in danger of being outflanked by the most recent Ukrainian advances. “If the enemy manages to take Lyman, if the enemy manages to reach Svatove, then even if in the meantime our forces take Bakhmut, this will have no benefit for our forces.”
Pro-Russian observers have long been warning of the risk to Lyman, which the Russian army is seemingly determined to hold even though it’s in their strategic interest to withdraw, given the outsize cost of trying to hold it. Many analysts have speculated that Putin has given his own version of Stalin’s “not one step back” order, forcing the Russian army to defend an increasingly untenable position for political reasons against all strategic sense. If and when the Ukrainian army takes Lyman, it will likely capture a significant number of Russian POWs and another treasure trove of abandoned Russian war matériel, a welcome boon to the Ukrainian war effort, and a virtual repeat of scenes earlier in the Kharkiv offensive when the Ukrainian military overran Izium.
As the situation on the ground currently stands, Kyiv has a better chance of eventually acceding to NATO than Putin has of ever getting his forcible seizure of sovereign soil, the largest since World War II, legitimized even by many of his allies, who have bridled at Russian losses in recent weeks and demonstrably distanced themselves from him. These include China and the Central Asian republics. When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently met with his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister praised Wang’s reaffirmation of China’s “respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Kazakhstan, a once stalwart ally of Russia, has absorbed thousands of Russians fleeing Putin’s disastrously implemented “partial mobilization” and affirmed its willingness to grant them asylum.
Nor is anyone much fooled by Russia’s transparently rigged plebiscites for “independence” in the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, all conducted at gunpoint, in territories largely depopulated by war. In a nod to Soviet-era totalitarianism, the voting “results” saw nearly 100% of all participants choosing to join Russia, while numerous figures not eligible to vote even under Moscow’s shambolic rules, including pro-Russian foreign fighters and Russian journalists, were also videotaped casting ballots. The Russian annexation plans were especially farcical in Zaporizhzhia, considering that Ukrainian forces currently control the regional capital there.
One senior Ukrainian military intelligence officer told Yahoo News that Putin’s stage-managed “Anschluss” changes nothing. “We have had Crimea occupied since 2014, but this fact has not altered our strategy,” the officer said. “We are fighting for our existence, for our victory over the enemy regardless of whether or not they call occupied territories Russia or Timbuktu.”
Whatever imaginary lines Vladimir Putin may draw on a map of Ukraine, the official said, the force of Ukrainian arms will decide the outcome of this war. And Washington is signaling that, if anything, it is only investing more in Ukraine’s longevity and cohesion as an independent state.
There’s no face-saving way out of this for Putin. He has lost his war and the humiliations only increase as it drags on. Every war aim he had has failed. Indeed, it has backfired: NATO is stronger than it has been in decades and Russia’s international prestige is at its lowest point in memory. His attempt to reconstitute the empire has demonstrated rather decisively that the country is no longer a great power.
That Putin and Russia have lost doesn’t mean that Ukraine or the West have won. The Ukrainians have suffered devasting losses along the route to victory. Further, an increasingly desperate and unstable narcissist with control of a vast nuclear arsenal isn’t exactly comforting.