Putin’s Ukraine ‘annexation playbook’ could leave no path to peace

If the Kremlin follows through on its alleged plans to annex large swaths of southern and eastern Ukraine, as the White House plans, it could fundamentally shift the stakes of the war and make a negotiated settlement virtually impossible. .

Why is this important: Kyiv and its Western supporters hope an influx of NATO-caliber weapons will allow Ukraine to reverse Russia’s gains. But if Russia follows the “playbook” the White House presented this week, Moscow will claim that fighting is now taking place on Russian soil.

Driving the news: White House spokesman John Kirby said on Tuesday that the United States has intelligence that the Kremlin is “examining detailed plans” to annex four Ukrainian oblasts or regions: Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk.

  • A senior German official told Axios that they shared the US assessment on the planned annexations.

By Vladimir Putin perspective, annexing the four regions dramatically raises the stakes of their defense – and potentially the tools he is willing to use to do so.

  • western country would never recognize such annexations, but the move could cloud the risk-reward calculus for providing arms and political support.
  • For Ukraine, the threat is more existential: partition, long-term destabilization and the disappearance of any possible peace agreement. It also increases the incentive to counterattack nowbefore Russia could put any annexation plan into practice.

The big picture: The four oblasts are contiguous and would link Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, to Russia.

  • Russian forces took Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in southern Ukraine early in the war. Then, after failing to capture Kyiv, they launched a massive offensive in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.
  • Putin claimed full control of Luhansk earlier this month and is now turning his attention to Donetsk.
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov acknowledged on Wednesday that Russia’s military ambitions extend beyond the Donbass, to Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and “a number of other territories” – including territory potentially held by the Ukraine in the West.

Enlarge: In Russian-controlled Kherson, Russia installed a puppet government, restricted the internet, enforced the use of the ruble, and began issuing Russian passports.

  • Kirby said the US believes the next steps in the ‘annexation playbook’ would include a fraudulent referendum on Russian membership, possibly in mid-September to align with regional elections in Russia .
  • Kirby vowed that the United States and its allies would respond with severe sanctions and added: “We would like to remind Mr. Putin that over time he may prove unable to hold this territory.”
White Hosue spokesman John Kirby describing the “annexation playbook”. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Image

Such a bold move would actually be a “logical next step” for Putin, argues Alexander Gabuev, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment.

  • Knowing that Ukraine is seeking to retake these territories, Putin could up the ante by immediately placing them under the Russian nuclear umbrella and responding to any Ukrainian counteroffensive with the threat of a tactical nuclear strike, Gabuev said.
  • “I think the math is that this will be the watershed moment where Western leaders become very cautious and the goals shift from retaking all pre-February 24 possessions to retaining what [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky has it right now,” says Gabuev.

The other side: By declaring that much of Ukraine would be part of Russia, Putin would effectively be committing to a large and sustained military presence inside Ukraine and risk being embarrassed if Ukrainian counterattacks were successful. .

  • But it could also further his goals of keeping Ukraine divided and weak and driving wedges between Kyiv and its Western backers – and between those backers themselves.
  • It’s a bet Putin might be willing to make. “This guy’s risk appetite is very different from Joe Biden’s risk appetite,” says Gabuev.

The threat of annexation comes during a “transition phase” of the war, says Michael Kofman, a leading expert on the Russian military at the NAC.

State of play: Russia has used its artillery advantage over the past three months to gradually advance in Donbass.

  • CIA Director Bill Burns said Wednesday that perhaps 15,000 Russian soldiers were killed and 45,000 wounded during the war. Although Burns says Kyiv’s casualties are probably “a little less than that”, they include some of the best-trained troops in Ukraine.
  • But Ukraine is now fighting back with its own longer-range artillery. The Russian offensive doesn’t appear to be over, Kofman says, but it hasn’t yielded any clear progress in the past two weeks.
Ukrainian soldiers on patrol in the Donbass region. Photo: Aris Messinas/AFP via Getty

“I think they are about to run out of steam” MI6 director Richard Moore told the Aspen Security Forum on Thursday. “Our assessment is that the Russians will find it increasingly difficult to provide manpower and materials over the next few weeks.”

  • The Ukrainians, for their part, carried out small-scale counter-offensives, especially around the city of Kherson.
  • “It very clearly looks like a positional game in order to set up for a full-line offensive,” Kofman said, noting that Ukrainian forces are doing the same in southern Donbass and Zaporizhzhia.

What to watch: Ukraine has a clear incentive to act before September to try to disrupt any Russian annexation plans.

  • Russia, meanwhile, appears to be trying to secure the borders of Kherson and other oblasts it controls without overstepping them, Kofman says, potentially paving the way for annexation.
  • “They would be taking a huge risk trying to annex Kherson because they could lose a lot of it,” he says. Kofman thinks the Kremlin could wait until the military outlook in Kherson is clearer before announcing its next moves.

Because the United States would not recognize annexations, the Biden administration’s stance on deploying US-made weapons — which Kyiv has promised to use only on Ukrainian soil — is unlikely to change.

  • But if the Kremlin sets new red lines, all sides will have to reconsider their own risk calculations.
  • While Zelensky would presumably want to fight with all his might, says Gabuev, some European countries might feel differently with nuclear weapons on the table and Putin threatening to throttle gas supplies.

Russian annexations would certainly change diplomatic calculation.

  • Western officials have expressed hope that their arms shipments will help create a more favorable status quo, allowing Ukraine to negotiate a ceasefire from a position of strength.
  • But Zelensky has pledged not to sign any deal that cedes territory to Russia – let alone almost a fifth of the country.

Where is it : Lavrov said on Wednesday the time was not right for peace talks. It remains unclear if that will ever be the case, as far as Putin is concerned.

  • Burns noted that Putin repeats in private what he said in public: “Ukraine is not a real country” and “it is his right, Russia’s right, to dominate Ukraine.”

The bottom line: Annexations could be a step in this direction. But they could also be a bad bet for more than one Russian leader who has already made several in this war.

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