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How Much Do Putin’s Annexations Really Matter?

They won’t change his calculus about using nuclear weapons.
October 3, 2022
How Much Do Putin’s Annexations Really Matter?
People wave Russian flags during a concert in support of the annexation of four Ukrainian regions at Red Square on September 30, 2022 in Moscow, Russia. Separatist leaders of annexed Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions of Ukraine were in Moscow to sign joint documents. (Photo by Contributor/Getty Images)

What are we to make of the Russian annexation of the occupied or partially occupied Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia? Does Vladimir Putin’s move change the outlook for the war, or have any bearing on what he will or won’t be willing to do in the face of defeat?

The pretext for the annexation was that the people of each province “voted” overwhelmingly in Russian-organized “referenda” to be annexed to their neighbor to the east. NGOs that keep tabs on international elections, such as Human Rights Watch and IDEA and even the U.N.’s political affairs chief, agree that these plebiscites were a sham. It turns out that legitimate elections don’t include threats of torture or summary execution against those who vote a certain way.

Yet even some observers who recognize the meaninglessness of the pseudo-referenda still worry that Putin, having recognized these territories as Russian, will use nuclear weapons to defend them. That certainly was the threat inherent in Putin’s September 21 speech announcing partial mobilization. Early in the speech, he referred to those who, as part of the “special operation,” “answered the call of their hearts to come to the defense of Russia and Donbas.” He went on to threaten: “In the defense of Russia and our people, we will certainly use all available means at our disposal. This is not a bluff.”

Maybe. It’s possible Putin is sending a simple message: I don’t consider using nuclear weapons that big a deal—at least not the “little” ones. I know you in the West think it is, but I’m willing to do it if I think it will give me an advantage. That would be consistent with Russia’s declaratory nuclear policy, which calls for the use of nuclear weapons if the existence of the state is threatened, even if the other side hasn’t used them. It would also be consistent with the “limited” nuclear strikes we now know Soviet military planners contemplated in the event of a conventional war with NATO in Europe. Such an interpretation would suggest that Putin is really serious, that he now genuinely considers parts of Ukraine to be parts of Russia, and that he’s really willing to use nuclear weapons to “defend” them.

Not so fast, tovarishch. First, to the extent that the Putin-might-use-nukes analysis depends on the idea that Putin actually cares about the results of the referenda, it does not hold water. A man who has rigged many elections in the past and killed and jailed many political opponents, and who was ultimately responsible for instigating these sham referenda, is not going to believe that just because people “voted,” sovereignty changed.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that Putin is the kind of guy who would risk a full-on nuclear exchange over a legal distinction between land Russia had merely stolen and land it had recently claimed. This summer, when the Ukrainians struck a Russian military base in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, Putin didn’t resort to nuclear weapons, even though the Crimeans had voted in a March 2014 “referendum” to join Russia and have ever since been administered as a Russian province. More to the point, Putin hardly reacted at all in April when the Ukrainians conducted a daring helicopter raid against Belgorod, a Russian city just across the border from Kharkiv. Why would Putin be more committed to the defense of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia than Belgorod?

You’ll rarely go wrong in attempting to understand Vladimir Putin if you take the most cynical possible interpretation of his words and deeds. That rule of thumb in this case explains why Putin is paying lip service to the referenda: They mimic legal, legitimate processes, and Putin prefers, whenever possible, to look like he’s doing things the legal way. That’s why, when Putin wanted to eliminate one of his burgeoning rivals, the billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, he had Khodorkovsky jailed for tax crimes when his real offense was trying to get involved in politics. Aleksei Navalny, the most prominent opposition figure in Russia, isn’t technically in jail for “extremism” or for being a “foreign agent,” but for missing his parole (because he had been poisoned by Putin’s security agencies). Between 2008 and 2012, Putin preferred to run the government from the post of prime minister rather than president because the president was constitutionally term-limited. When he hit the limit again in 2020, Putin preferred to stage a national “referendum” (noticing a pattern yet?) to change the constitution rather than install another caretaker president. Putin doesn’t really care about legal niceties; he just likes to make it look like he does. So don’t imagine for a moment that he would feel compelled to use—or not use—nuclear weapons because of some mere legal principle.

The real reason Putin hasn’t used nuclear weapons is the same as it has always been—indeed, the same as it has been since the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb in the Kazakh desert in 1949. Putin is deterred. He knows, or at least suspects strongly enough, that the use of a nuclear weapon would entail unacceptable consequences. Just because he might not consider using nuclear weapons a big deal doesn’t mean that we—specifically the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, the three nuclear-armed NATO members—don’t. That gives the United States and its allies leverage. If he’s truly cavalier about using nuclear weapons, and we’re not, then he has reason to worry that the use of even a small nuclear weapon would trigger a much larger response.

President Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, has made it known that the United States has warned the Russian government in private that any use of nuclear weapons would have “catastrophic consequences.” Just in case that message isn’t clear, it should be repeated in public by Biden himself. He should say, in his own voice, something like: The United States would consider the use of nuclear, chemical, biological, or radiological weapons anywhere in Ukraine to be a significant threat to our vital national interests, and we would respond accordingly. One benefit of such a pronouncement would be to tie Biden’s hands, thereby strengthening the credibility of the threat. The more credible the threat, the more Putin has to worry about the consequences of using nuclear weapons—whether on territory he’s annexed or on territory he hasn’t.

Which brings us back to the annexations. The best explanation of what they accomplish is that they make it harder for Putin to back down. (They also, under Russian law, allow him to send recruits to those territories, whereas before he could only send volunteers; but again, laws mean nothing to him.) The cleverness of the annexations is that they set a clear new goal for Russia’s military: Take these four provinces, then maybe we can declare victory.

What the annexations don’t do is give Putin any more personnel or materiel, better leadership, or a boost to morale to accomplish his goals. As David Kramer noted on Friday, Putin’s partial mobilization, together with the referenda, may ultimately make it even harder for him to accomplish even his pared-down objectives in Ukraine.

Other than that, the annexations change nothing.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.