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Russia's Illegal Land Grab
The Russian invasion has been an exercise in hubristic, self-destructive overreach of a sort that we have rarely seen in the postwar era.
Putin has illegally annexed four more regions of Ukraine:
Russian President Vladimir Putin proclaimed the biggest annexation of territory in postwar Europe on Friday, claiming a nuclear-backed yet shaky control over swaths of Ukraine even as his forces were on the verge of another significant battlefield setback.
These annexations are outright theft of Ukrainian territory, and the bogus votes that preceded them were obviously rigged to provide some minimal political cover for this land grab. The danger is that Putin now claims these territories as part of Russia and has said he will treat attacks in these areas as if they were attacks on Russian territory. Because he has claimed them as part of Russia, it will also be much more difficult politically for the Russian government to cede them back as part of any settlement. The Ukrainian government obviously cannot accept the permanent loss of so much of its territory, especially when its forces have been having success in recent weeks, and it is bound to ignore the Russian demand to cease all military action.
Russia’s illegal annexations appear to be a move born of desperation as Putin seeks to “lock in” the gains made earlier in the year by laying claim to occupied territories, and it suggests that he would respond to further reverses in the war with more escalation. The obvious worry is that this escalation could include the use of nuclear weapons in an attempt to offset conventional weakness and battlefield losses. Setting off any nuclear weapon would be a terrifying and criminal act, but it seems unlikely by itself to change the course of the war. It would be a self-defeating act by Russia since it would alienate almost all other nations and make it a true pariah in many parts of the world, so we have to hope that Putin and other top officials realize how useless it would be before it is too late.
To the extent that Putin has convinced himself that the war is an existential one for Russia, we have to take the possibility of nuclear use very seriously. If that should happen, the U.S. should not respond with any direct attacks on Russian forces, since that would only lead to a widening of the war and the increased likelihood of additional uses of nuclear weapons. The priority for the U.S. and its allies still has to be to keep the war contained and to prevent it from spreading to include the rest of Europe and North America. Direct intervention in the war is an unacceptable option.
The illegal annexations make the situation much more unstable than before, as the Russian government has put down a marker saying that it will defend these territories and never let them go. The Ukrainian government cannot tolerate that, and neither would any other self-respecting government. The U.S. and its allies will never recognize these territorial claims, so there is no realistic chance of any negotiated settlement that allows Russia to keep them. If Moscow imagines that this is their way out of a war by seizing land and declaring victory, their leadership has badly miscalculated once again. The annexations have made a negotiated compromise to halt the fighting extremely difficult, and in the absence of such a compromise the war will grind on for at least another year and probably much longer than that.
The Russian invasion has been an exercise in hubristic, self-destructive overreach of a sort that we have rarely seen in the postwar era. The costs to Russia have been massive, and any benefits that it might get from a few new territories will never be worth the losses they have already suffered. The invasion has been a colossal blunder as well as a massive crime, and the Russian government would be wise to cut its losses and withdraw back to their pre-February 24 lines. Unfortunately, the Russian government seems to have completely bought into its own propaganda and won’t admit that their war has been a costly failure.