Russia has completed "referendums" in occupied Ukraine, opening the path for the annexation of additional sovereign Ukrainian territory. Moscow wants to coerce Ukraine into stopping its effective counteroffensive by threatening to take territory as early as this week. How might Kyiv, supported by the west, call Putin's bluff?
Russia held a bogus "referendum" in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia, where they requested voters seek membership into the Russian Federation. Armed Russian troops watched the voting in seized Ukrainian territory, where many pro-government supporters fled. Ukrainians call it a gunpoint vote.
Moscow obtained the promised "results." With a rubber-stamped (and generally unrecognized) request for admission, the Russian government is ready to annex the four regions, including some areas not under Russian control.
Russia has lost ground recently. Last month's Ukrainian counterattack took about 3,000 sq mi in weeks. Vladimir Putin’s Soldiers were forced out of most of Kharkiv, where they'd assured citizens "Russia had arrived for good," and began losing Donetsk and Luhansk territory occupied before 24 February.
Analysts claim Russia is annexing to stop its decline. By calling these regions part of Russia, Moscow threatens an overwhelming reaction, including a potential nuclear assault, as part of a defensive war unless Ukraine stops liberating its own territory. Russia threatens an escalation to stem its losses until its soldiers can regroup.
When will Russia annex?
Many anticipated Vladimir Putin to take the territory on Friday, September 30. By law, Putin must first propose these accords to the Federation Council, Russia's upper parliament, for signing.
That's doable quickly. The Federation Council has said it won't meet on Friday. If so, the next session is next Friday, 4 October.
That may mean Russia is pausing to dangle conversations with Kyiv and the west to stall Ukraine's momentum. Or that it's testing annexation support. Without international faith in the Russian president, annexation looks imminent.
What follows annexation?
What's the answer? Vladimir Putin and other senior officials said they'll start treating seized territories as sovereign Russian territory. Russia has accused Ukraine of cross-border attacks throughout the conflict, notably at Belgorod and against a Russian airfield in seized Crimea. Moscow says it's serious and threatens escalation.
Russia may attack other population centers and government buildings with its remaining missiles, as it did earlier this month near Kharkiv.
Moscow might perform nuclear exercises or use tactical nuclear attacks to terrify the west. It will also push mobilized forces to the front to hold the lines and prevent Russia from losing further land.
Russia may block borders or declare martial law at home. Martial law might involve confiscating property, implementing curfews, arresting regime dissidents, interning foreign residents, and other extreme steps.
Ukraine says it won't tolerate Russia's nuclear blackmail and plans to liberate all Russian-occupied territories. Western officials agree, saying they've warned the Kremlin against using heavy weapons, including nuclear weapons.
In the following days, this creates great uncertainty. Vladimir Putin warned, "This is no bluff." The Russian president may be bluffing, but he'll be under pressure to hang onto his land.
Putin's long-term ambition is to rule Ukraine politically. Before the conflict, he declared he wanted no NATO expansion assurances, but now it's evident he wants a regime change in Kyiv and to dominate Ukraine's political destiny.
Annexing east Ukraine won't satisfy him. While he wants to pause the Ukrainian assault and allow his men time to recuperate, many anticipate him to return to the attack once his troops are ready.
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