Putin's annexation of Ukrainian land raises the risks a nuclear weapon will be used and tanks the possibility of talks to end the war
- Putin's annexation of four regions of Ukraine raises the risk of a nuclear weapon being used in the long-term, experts warn.
- "Russia is committing to an escalation," one Russia expert told Insider.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of four Ukrainian regions into Russia on Friday in a bombastic speech filled with anti-Western rhetoric, nuclear threats, and historical revisionism. He also warned that Russia "will defend our land with all the powers and means at our disposal."
Russia watchers and military experts told Insider that these aggressive moves and statements show Putin is "losing" in Ukraine and wants the US and its NATO allies to "back off." They warn that Putin has effectively eliminated the possibility of negotiations and stressed that these annexations raise the risk of nuclear weapons being used in the long-term.
Putin sees this moment as one of "civilizational conflict with the West," and he made this clear in his speech, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former senior intelligence officer who led strategic analysis on Russia for the National Intelligence Council from 2015 to 2018, told Insider.
The Russian president is "raising the stakes in so many different ways," said Kendall-Taylor, now the director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
During his speech, Putin said that use of nuclear weaponry by the US against Japan during World War II set a "precedent."
That Putin went out of his way to make such a point is "extremely unnerving," Kendall-Taylor said, adding that it almost seems as if the Russian leader is "talking himself into it and looking for ways to justify his potential use of a nuclear weapon if he needs to do so at a later date."
The risks of Putin employing a nuclear weapon in the immediate future are "still low," she said, but she emphasized that the annexation "increased those risks."
"I do worry now that as the Ukrainians reclaim territory that Russia has now annexed and that [Putin] claims as Russian, given that he now is so personally invested in this, that the risk of his use of a tactical nuke on the battlefield in Ukraine has gone up," Kendall-Taylor said.
'Committing to an escalation'
"Russia is committing to an escalation," Cynthia Hooper, a history professor and Russia expert at the College of the Holy Cross, told Insider.
Putin is using the illegal annexations of Ukraine's Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia oblasts to reframe the war for Russian citizens, Hooper said, adding that "now he and his advisors can tell a story, going forward, of how the Kremlin wants peace but Ukraine and its US supporters are insisting on war and attacking Mother Russia."
"This is scary. It is a false narrative, constructed by a person who absolutely knows his actions will prompt further conflict. It is a strategy designed in expectation of military escalation," Hooper said.
The pressing issue for Putin at the moment is that he's "been losing," Jeffrey Edmonds, a CNA Russia expert and former CIA military analyst, told Insider, and the "annexation, the mobilization — these are all measures he's trying to take to fix the problem."
The Ukraine war has been disastrous for the Russian military so far. Strategically, military experts say that Russia has essentially already been defeated. Putin launched the war with the goal of subjugating the whole of Ukraine. But Russia failed to take Kyiv and was effectively forced to turn its attention to the eastern Donbas region — a far less ambitious objective.
Russian forces are estimated to have suffered as many as 80,000 casualties, if not more, since the war began, and they've struggled with myriad equipment issues.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has in recent weeks managed to recapture a significant chunk of territory as part of a blistering counteroffensive. These losses are widely believed to be the reason behind Putin's decision last week to announced a military mobilization plan, calling up tens of thousands of reservists to help address Russia's manpower problems. There have been a number of signs that the mobilization is highly unpopular, with thousands of Russian men fleeing the country amid nationwide protests and even instances of violence.
Putin realizes that Russia is "really on a negative trajectory at this point," Edmonds said. "The counteroffensive and the fact that he wasn't able to take these territories like he thought, that was a big turning point for him and the Russian population in which he really felt like he needs to escalate — or at least rhetorically escalate and warn of nuclear weapons."
Putin knows the US and NATO do not want to go to war with Russia and is trying to send a message that if they keep providing Ukraine with weapons and security assistance, then that's "exactly what we'll have, with all the nuclear trappings that go with it," Edmonds said, "That's really where the rhetoric comes from. He's always used nuclear rhetoric, but it it is picking up."
Indeed, the mobilization and annexations come at a desperate moment for Putin. In formally annexing the four Ukrainian regions — a move that came after referendums decried as a sham by leaders across the globe — Putin is vying to hold on to what little progress Russian forces have made. But as Ukraine's counteroffensive continues, Russia may find it difficult to hold on to the territory it now claims as its own and vows to defend.
Putin announced the annexations "even as Ukrainian forces encircled Russian troops in the key city of Lyman, Luhansk Oblast, immediately demonstrating that Russia will struggle to hold the territory it claims to have annexed," according to a Friday report from the Institute for the Study of War, which has provided timely battlefield updates on the Ukraine conflict. "Putin likely intends annexation to freeze the war along the current frontlines and allow time for Russian mobilization to reconstitute Russian forces," the report added.
'There's not a negotiated settlement to this'
The annexation of Ukraine's territory, which came eight years after Russia annexed Crimea, also greatly diminishes the possibility of any negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv.
"The ceremony today was presented, on Russian television and to a domestic Russian audience, as a Russian victory. Putin said himself that now that these four regions have been, in his words, reunited with Russia, he is prepared to negotiate for peace — but then in the same breath, he added that any peace deal would have to respect these new territorial acquisitions and that their status was not up for future negotiation," Hooper said.
Ukraine has been clear that it will not accept any peace deal that involves ceding territory to Russia.
"Russia has been and remains an aggressor illegally occupying parts of Ukrainian land. Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say," Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a tweet earlier this month.
Along these lines, analysts say that Putin has helped ensure that the Ukraine war won't end any time soon. The annexations solidify for "the Ukrainians that they have to defeat the Russians in Ukraine," Edmonds said, "There's not a negotiated settlement to this."
"I don't think there's room for negotiation for quite some time because the Ukrainians have been winning and the Russians just demand Ukrainian surrender. Why would you surrender when you're winning?" Edmonds added.
And if Russia continues to lose ground, particularly in territories in now claims as its own yet does not fully occupy, this could reduce the threshold for further escalation and possibly even the use of a nuclear weapon.
"In some ways the mobilization itself lowered the probability of nuclear use in the near-term," Edmonds said, explaining that Putin announced the draft to help address the issues Russian forces have been facing and that he wants to see how it all plays out.
"Now, let's say in some scenario, it doesn't fix the problem. The Russian military collapses over the winter, and he starts losing big — then I think the chances for non-strategic nuclear use go up. But I think right now he's really trying to step up the rhetoric to get the US and NATO to back off," Edmonds added.
Similarly, Kendall-Taylor said that the "unfortunate reality" is that the better the Ukrainians do on the battlefield, the higher the risk of Russia using a tactical nuclear weapon. "The stakes are higher for Putin," Kendall-Taylor said, because mobilization and annexation were "quite clearly his decisions."
Putin will give mobilization a "little bit of time to play out and to see how effective it can be in turning the tide, or at least stemming Ukrainian advances," Kendall-Taylor said, but the use of a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine is "directly tied to Russia's fate on the battlefield."
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