What Putin's Annexation Means For Russia's War With Ukraine : Consider This from NPR Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the formal annexation of four territories in Ukraine on Friday, after the conclusion of what U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called "sham" referendums and "a complete farce."

NPR's Kat Lonsdorf talked with Ukrainians near the frontline about how the turmoil is affecting them.

Dara Massicot, a Russian military analyst with the RAND corporation, says, with this move, Putin has "burned bridges behind him," leaving him with few options to force a closure to the war. She says that makes this the beginning of a dangerous new phase.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Russia's Illegal Annexation Ushers In A Dangerous New Phase Of The War

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It's misleading to call what happened in the eastern regions of Ukraine over the last week voting.

ANDREII BOYARSKII: (Through interpreter) Well, the voting happens in the way that they point a gun at the individual and they make them vote for a referendum, saying yes for it.

CHANG: That is Andreii Boyarskii. He lives just on the Ukrainian side of the front line. His sister lives on the other side in Russian-occupied territory in Berdyansk, Zaporizhzhia. It's one of the territories where Russia orchestrated what it called referendums. The ballot asked residents if they wanted their territory to become part of Russia, though, again, what Andreii's sister described to him in text messages sent whenever she could manage to find a cell signal, it wasn't really a referendum at all.

BOYARSKII: (Through interpreter) My sister, she opened her doors in the house. But the neighbors who kept the doors locked, they just - they simply knocked the door off.

CHANG: Andreii said his sister wanted to vote no. She's Ukrainian. But with the barrel of a gun pointed at her...

BOYARSKII: (Through interpreter) She's voting yes. There was no other choice. Under the barrel, you can't put anything else.

CHANG: Russian state news agency TASS confirmed that most of the ballots were taken door to door by poll workers under armed guard. Voting opened just days after the referendums were announced - not enough time to even set up polling stations. So it came as no surprise when Russia announced it had the votes it needed to absorb the territories into Russia. And Friday, Russia did just that - formally annexed these territories in a signing ceremony at the Kremlin to widespread condemnation from Western leaders.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Is it OK if we talk?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Non-English language spoken).

ABLAMIT: (Through interpreter) Yeah, no problem.


CHANG: NPR's Kat Lonsdorf has been traveling as close as she can get to the border of the occupied territory to hear how Ukrainians are dealing with all of this. She met a 62-year-old man named Ablamit in a convoy of cars that had just fled after the so-called referendum was announced.

LONSDORF: And you don't want the referendum. I mean, you don't want to vote.

ABLAMIT: (Through interpreter) Why I would participate in this madness of this Russian oligarch.

CHANG: Ablamit told her that he was worried about his family still in the Russian-occupied territory. That's why we agreed to use just his first name. He's worried about what will happen after the annexation.

ABLAMIT: (Through interpreter) I guess they want to forcibly give passports to the people after this referendum, and they want to forcefully mobilize them.

CHANG: That's one of the scariest parts of all this for a lot of Ukrainians - the idea that Russia could force them to fight against Ukraine. Ablamit says his 34-year-old son tried to get out with the rest of the family, but he was turned back at the border. The guards said that if they let him pass, he would join the army to fight for Ukraine.

LONSDORF: Are you worried that they will mobilize him for Russia?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Non-English language spoken).

ABLAMIT: (Through interpreter) I don't know about it. I don't even think about it. You know, I don't even want to think about it. I don't know how it's going to be.

CHANG: Now that the annexation has taken place, in Russia's eyes, Ablamit's son isn't Ukrainian anymore. He is a citizen of Russia.


CHANG: CONSIDER THIS - Russian President Vladimir Putin has tried to achieve on a map what his army has been unable to deliver on the battlefield. It has huge consequences for millions of Ukrainians and signals a dangerous new phase in this war.


CHANG: From NPR, I'm Ailsa Chang. It's Friday, September 30.


CHANG: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. In Moscow Friday morning, in the Kremlin's grand St. George Hall, Russia put the final ceremonial touch on its takeover of four regions in Ukraine.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).


CHANG: In front of the lawmakers and dignitaries, Putin claimed that the people in those regions had made their choice, and that choice cannot be betrayed no matter what the West thinks about it.


PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: The residents of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson are becoming our citizens, he said.


PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).


CHANG: Forever.

This was the second time in a decade that Putin has redrawn the map of Europe, or at least the Russian versions of those maps. He annexed Crimea, also part of Ukraine, by nearly identical means back in 2014. Western leaders have overwhelmingly condemned this latest move as a flagrant violation of international law. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the territories are and will remain Ukrainian.


ANTONY BLINKEN: The entire process around these sham referenda was a complete farce. The United States does not and will never recognize any of the Kremlin's claims to sovereignty over parts of Ukraine that it seized by force.

CHANG: Friday morning, the White House announced a new round of sanctions targeting Russian leaders and their family members. In his annexation announcement, Putin called on Ukraine to end hostilities and hold negotiations with Moscow but insisted that the fate of those annexed territories were not on the table. Needless to say, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy did not take him up on that offer.


PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: Immediately after Putin's remarks, Zelenskyy said he signed an accelerated NATO membership application. Now, to understand why Russia is doing this and what it means for the course of the war, I talked to Dara Massicot, a Russian military analyst with the RAND Corporation.

DARA MASSICOT: From my vantage point - and I look at the Russian military - they need the war to end at an intense level. Like, they've been fighting it for the last few months. They need it to end immediately. And from their perspective, the quickest way to do that is to annex these territories and immediately start discussing how they're going to defend them with all means possible, which is a vague reference to Russia's nuclear arsenal, and then offering a poisoned chalice cease-fire to Kyiv that Kyiv cannot accept. And the goal of this is to bring the fighting to a close on their terms to buy them time to repair and regenerate.

CHANG: But Russia doesn't actually militarily control much of the territory that Putin has now annexed, so how much does all of this risk backfiring on him, do you think?

MASSICOT: That is a very astute observation, and there are several logic bombs within the annexation that he just announced today. You are correct. Russia does not control the entirety of those Ukrainian oblasts. So essentially, what he's just done by annexing the territories is admit that there are Ukrainian forces on, quote-unquote, "Russian territory." Unfortunately for his logic, his forces in those areas are not in a position to force Ukrainian army units out of the picture. They're exhausted and depleted.

CHANG: Right. But he is vowing - Putin is vowing to protect the newly annexed territories by, quote, "all available means." As you point out, he's - there's a threat here, a veiled threat, at least, that that may include a nuclear weapon. How real is that threat?

MASSICOT: Well, this is part of the playbook that they use. They did this after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. They made other similar threats about using nukes to defend Russian territory, even that which they have illegally acquired. This is part of their plan. In terms of how realistic it is in the short term, a few things will influence that decision making. I think right now, it's pretty low probability, and I say that because they did opt to mobilize.

If they believed that they did not have an operational way forward on the battlefield, they wouldn't have undertaken the very politically risky decision to order a mobilization. My assumption is that they're going to try to use these forces to stabilize their holdings that they have right now and just hold on to what they've taken from Ukraine. So if that succeeds, then he does not need to use other tools to escalate. However, it's very risky.

CHANG: That said, the question remains. I mean, even as Russia annexes these regions, the Ukrainian counteroffensive continues. If Ukraine continues to overrun Russian forces in territories that Russia is declaring as its own now, what does that mean for Putin? Is he backed into a corner?

MASSICOT: I do think that Russia has burned a lot of bridges. Putin in particular has burned a lot of bridges behind himself by annexing and drawing these countries into Russia. There's really no political way forward from this. It eliminates a lot of possibilities for negotiations or some kind of settlement or agreement.

CHANG: Well, currently, Ukraine's settlement terms are that it will not cede any territory. Ukraine also wants Russia to leave Crimea, which Russia's occupied since 2014. Are those conditions realistic now, or do they mean this will be an endless conflict?

MASSICOT: They do signal Ukraine's long-term intent to not accept what Russia has done. Whether or not that's realistic will depend on a few factors, mostly on the continued support that Ukraine is receiving from the West. That will determine in the next weeks, in the next months ahead, what happens to Russia's very troubled front line. I note that even today, during the annexation speech, Russian forces in Luhansk are at risk of being encircled, and Russia may be facing an additional collapse of its front lines. So the situation is very dynamic and very fluid, and I suspect it will remain that way through the winter. The longer-term goals of pushing them back out of Crimea, that's very difficult proposition. Russia has had eight years to essentially entrench itself there. That would require a very significant increase in support to Ukraine.

CHANG: And what about Russia's recent mobilization - I mean, calling up hundreds of thousands of troops there, which has been met with some public opposition. What chance do those reinforcements have of changing Russia's fortunes at this moment?

MASSICOT: Well, you know, the Russian mobilization base has been neglected for about a decade. So for them to suddenly order it to snap to attention and provide them with an operational solution is wishful thinking on behalf of the Kremlin. There are a few ways forward for what that force can do for Moscow. If they use these mobilized people, who are poorly trained at best or they've had military experience from many years ago - if they use them in noncombat roles, like, you know, maintaining checkpoints or traffic stops or noncombat roles behind the occupied territories, it might help Russia retain what it has taken. That's a large number of people. It would be difficult for Ukraine to go inside those areas and oust all of these people right now. If Russia were to make a poor operational decision, which they have a track record of doing, they would probably take these people and start feeding them piecemeal to the front line along the line of contact where they will not be a value add and could potentially make a very stressful situation even worse because they are not trained and have never been placed in that kind of situation.

CHANG: Well, if Putin has burned bridges, as you say, does that raise the risk that he does something catastrophic here?

MASSICOT: We are, in my view, heading into unchartered waters. The fact that he has taken the step of ordering a what he calls partial mobilization - this is a pretty extreme step in terms of the risks of blowbacks to him inside Russia. My concern is that if this does not work, what options does he have left to try to force a closure to this war before it gets worse for Russia? And I worry that that could be things like targeted cyberattacks against Ukraine and its supporters. I saw the Russian defense minister making veiled threats against NATO's satellite constellation. There is the specter of nuclear coercion, but I do note that even if it gets to that point, there's a lot of signals that will be picked up on before such weapons could be used - so signaling the intent, moving them around, demonstrating the use, having an exercise. It won't be a bolt from the blue, but we are in a - entering into a dangerous new phase.


CHANG: Dara Massicot is a senior researcher with the RAND Corporation.



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