Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of Russia’s annexation of four Ukrainian regions to its territory elevated the conflict in the region to a completely different level.
This step, although expected, has placed everyone against unprecedented challenges, opening the doors to a bloody conflict that may extend to future generations.
The main reason for the Russian president’s annexation of these areas was the losses suffered by his forces in the field in September, as the Ukrainian counterattack captured more than 3,000 square miles in just weeks.
The counterattack forced Russian forces to withdraw from the Kharkiv region after they had promised the local population that “Russia is here to stay forever.”
The annexation of these regions serves as a halt to the Russian retreat on the battlefield. By declaring these Ukrainian lands as part of Russia, Moscow is threatening a crushing response, including a possible nuclear attack as part of a defensive war, unless Ukraine halts its efforts to liberate its territory.
From the Russian point of view, the counterattack of Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv was a “direct blow from the West against Russia.” Everyone knows that this attack was organised and prepared by the military command of the US and NATO and was carried out under their direct supervision.
This was done not only through the use of NATO military equipment, but also through the direct participation of Western military space intelligence, mercenaries, and trainees.
Contrary to what the Russian side says, Ukraine and the West described the whole thing as a coercive and illegal measure aiming to create a legal pretext to annex the four regions of Russia.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described the process as a farce in the occupied territories that cannot even be described as a simulation of a referendum.
US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas Greenfield said during a Security Council meeting that her country would present a resolution in the council urging member states not to recognise any change in Ukraine’s status, obligating Moscow to withdraw its forces.
Russia can, of course, veto any resolution, but the US envoy said that would prompt Washington to refer the issue to the UN General Assembly.
America, in turn, is trying to create an anti-Russian momentum, declaring that the G7 will impose immediate sanctions on any country seeking to recognise the Russian move.
But what comes after the annexation? Putin and other senior officials have indicated that they will begin to treat attacks on annexed areas as attacks on sovereign Russian territory.
Russia has previously accused Ukraine of carrying out cross-border strikes during the war on the Belgorod region and the Russian air base in occupied Crimea, which Moscow claims as its sovereign territory. However, Moscow now says it is serious and is threatening to escalate.
In terms of military operations, Russia may start targeting more population centres and government buildings with its missiles. Moscow may also, most likely, begin conducting nuclear exercises or even tactical nuclear strikes to intimidate the West. It might even rush troops to the front to maintain ranks and prevent Russia from losing more territory to the Ukrainian counterattack. At home, Russia may also close borders or impose martial law in some areas.
At this point, the question will be, “How can the West respond?”
Ukraine has said that it will not accept Russian nuclear blackmail and is determined to liberate all the territories occupied by Russia since the beginning of the war. Western officials agreed, saying they had issued very stern warnings to the Kremlin not to escalate this conflict through the use of powerful weapons, including the nuclear option.
This is generating incredible uncertainty in the days ahead.
“This is not a hoax,” Putin said, when making his threat directly. It may be a bluff, but the Russian president will be hard-pressed to keep the land he has seized.
In the long term, Putin appears to have the same goal — political control of Ukraine. While he said before the war that he wanted security guarantees that NATO would not expand, it is now clear that he seeks to change the political map in Europe and reassert Russia’s Cold War era power.
* Hatem Sadek is a Professor at Helwan University