Pro-Russians announce majority in favor of joining Russia in referendums 4:18
President Vladimir Putin will sign agreements Friday that will bring thousands of square miles of Ukrainian territory into Russia, in what will be the largest forced annexation of territory in Europe since 1945.
The agreements will be signed at a ceremony in the Kremlin, three days after hastily held referendums concluded in the four areas of Ukraine that Moscow will now consider Russian territory.
Putin will deliver a speech and meet with the leaders of the four occupied regions, backed by Russia, according to the Kremlin.
Russian forces organized illegal "referendums" in Ukraine.
What's next now?
Ukraine and its Western allies have categorically rejected the proposed annexation of the four regions: Donetsk, Luhansk and much of Kherson and Zaporizhia, a swath of Ukrainian territory containing heavy industry, rich farmland and a critical conduit for fresh water for Crimea.
Donetsk and Luhansk are home to two secessionist republics that Moscow has backed since 2014, while Kherson and parts of Zaporizhia have been controlled by Russian forces since shortly after the invasion began in late February.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has stated that if the Kremlin goes ahead with the annexation, any negotiations with Putin will be impossible.
Members of a local electoral commission count the ballots after the "referendum" on the accession of the occupied regions of Ukraine to Russia, in Sevastopol, Crimea, on September 27.
Credit: Alexey Pavlishak/Reuters
In total, Russia plans to raise its flag over some 100,000 square kilometers of Ukrainian territory, in what is a flagrant violation of international law and after votes declared without legal effect by the vast majority of countries, including some friends of Russia such as Serbia.
Although the international community will reject Russia's plan almost in unison (with a few exceptions like Syria and North Korea), annexation changes the "facts on the ground" and diminishes the prospects for any negotiated solution.
There is a big difference between withdrawing from occupied territory (as the Russians did in April when they withdrew from much of northern Ukraine) and giving up areas that have been formally and ceremonially absorbed into the mother country, especially for a leader like Putin, who is obsessed with a "great Russia."
US believes Putin unlikely to use nuclear weapons, but threat has 'raised'
Indeed, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said last week that once the so-called republics are integrated into the Russian Federation, "not a single future leader of Russia, not a single official will be able to reverse these decisions."
And once the Russian flag flies over these zones, they will have the same level of protection as any other part of the Russian Federation, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared on Saturday.
As Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Foundation put it last week, the Kremlin's message to Ukraine's allies is this: "You chose to fight us in Ukraine, now try to fight us in Russia itself, or, to be more precise, in what we call Russia".
The second part of that message, detailed in Putin's speech announcing the partial mobilization, is that any attack on what is considered Russian territory invites the full range of retaliation.
In 2020, Putin signed a decree updating Russia's nuclear doctrine and allowing the use of nuclear weapons "in case of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is threatened."
The definition of that threat is not exactly clear, but last week Putin issued his most explicit warning yet: "The territorial integrity of our homeland, our independence and our freedom will be secured, I stress again, by all means at our disposal." disposition. And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the prevailing winds can turn in their direction."
To most observers, these dire warnings are a desperate tactic.
US officials have said they do not believe Putin will resort to tactical nuclear weapons, though they cannot rule out the possibility.
The threat is certainly "elevated" compared to earlier in the year, multiple sources told CNN on Wednesday.
In recent months, the United States has privately warned Russia against taking such a catastrophic step.
But so far, there is no sign that Russia is planning its use imminently and the "overall assessment has not changed," a source familiar with the intelligence said.
Putin may also hope that the annexation ceremonies of new territories will consolidate public support for his goals, after a week in which complaints and protests over the poorly executed partial mobilization have spread.
Protests, errors in recruitment and exodus: Putin's mobilization begins chaotically
Putin enjoyed stratospheric approval ratings after he annexed Crimea following a similar alleged referendum in 2014, but much has changed since then.
Russia is weighed down by sanctions (and the annexation process will bring more) and has suffered at least 70,000 casualties in Ukraine, according to US and NATO officials.
Anatol Lieven, director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute, told CNN last week that Putin's real goal is "to persuade the United States and/or the Europeans to be serious about negotiating a compromise agreement to end the war, showing that Russia will otherwise take radically escalatory steps that will not only force the West to escalate in turn, but also rule out any possible peace for a long time."
If that is the case, Putin may be disappointed.
There are no signs that Ukraine or Western governments are heeding that warning.
The United States has just announced another batch of high-tech weaponry for Ukraine, including more HIMARS long-range artillery systems, which have transformed the battlefield.
And Ukrainian forces, far from second-guessing the greater risk of attacking areas that Moscow now considers its own, are accelerating an offensive in the Donetsk region.
The pro-Russian forces in and around the town of Lyman are about to be encircled.
If they are forced to cede territory in the heart of Donbas, which in a few days will be considered in the Kremlin as Russian land, it will be a first blow to Putin's newly drawn red line.
Ulrich Speck, an analyst at Carnegie and RFE, tweeted this Thursday: "If there are no clearly defined borders, the threat to defend the 'Russian borders' in Ukraine even with nuclear weapons quickly loses credibility and becomes irrelevant to the fight."
And Jon Wolfsthal, a former arms control official in the Obama administration, said in a tweet: "Putin has given us a choice: accept border redraw through force and avoid nuclear threats (for now) or reject fake referendums and help Ukraine preserve itself and the nation-state concept and accept nuclear risks."
war in ukraine