What Does Russia’s Annexation Mean?

What Does Russia’s Annexation Mean?
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“The annexation diminishes the prospects for any negotiated settlement.”

Following the annexation referendums in four oblasts of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced that these four regions will be part of Russia, but what does the annexation mean, what could happen next?

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of four regions of Ukraine following the referendums held in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson oblasts between 23 and 27 September.

The annexations were announced by Putin in a ceremony held in the St. George’s Hall of the Kremlin, where he announced the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Putin said: “We will not discuss the choice of the people in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson. That has been made. Russia will not betray them.”

Putin, sending a message to Kyiv, added: “I want the Kyiv authorities and their real masters in the West to hear me so that they remember this. People living in Luhansk and Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia are becoming our citizens forever.”

Following the annexation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Ukraine submitted an “accelerated” application to join NATO. “We are taking our decisive step by signing Ukraine’s application for accelerated accession to NATO,” said Zelenskyy. He also said that Ukraine will not negotiate with Russia as long as Putin is the president of Russia.

What did Russia annex?

The 40,000 square miles of annexed Southern and Eastern Ukrainian territory make up around 15% of Ukraine and it is the largest forced annexation of land in Europe since World War II.

Vadim Karasev, a Kyiv-based political analyst said that the mostly Russian-speaking regions which were annexed were heavily industrialized during the Soviet era and contributed a quarter of the Ukrainian gross domestic product (GDP) before the war.

Karasev also said that the annexed territory created a “land bridge” between Russia and Crimea which was annexed in 2014, safeguarding the peninsula, and with Russia surrounding the Azov Sea, they blocked Kyiv’s access to the Black Sea.

Russia also claimed the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant as “war booty,” Jonathan Tirone of Bloomberg said. The Zaporizhzhia Plant accounts for 20% of Ukraine’s electricity and the workers there were told that they will need to re-apply to Rosatom to keep their jobs.

Why did Putin annex the territory? 

Andrew E. Kramer, in an article he wrote for the New York Times, said that the Russian decision to annex the four oblasts came after the humiliating Russian defeat in Kharkiv. In early September, the Ukrainian forces drove the Russian Army out of another oblast, Kharkiv.

Kramer said that the Ukrainian counteroffensive led Putin to put the plan in motion. His aims imply that Russia is attacking and not defending Ukraine and since Russia will be justified to use any military means necessary to the annexed lands, Putin signaled a thinly veiled nuclear threat. The annexation could also be used as a rationale to draft the Ukrainian men living in the four regions into the Russian Army to ease the troop shortage.

Natalia Savelyeva, a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis said that the referenda mark a “new phase of war” and that these are signs that the Russian regime does not feel very comfortable.

What will happen next?

The Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that nothing changes for Ukraine: “By attempting to annex Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions, Putin tries to grab territories he doesn’t even physically control on the ground. Nothing changes for Ukraine: we continue liberating our land and our people, restoring our territorial integrity.”

Tim Lister, in an analysis for CNN, said: “While the international community will reject Russia’s plan almost in unison (expect a few outliers like Syria and North Korea), annexation does change the ‘facts on the ground’ and diminishes the prospects for any negotiated settlement.”

Lister added that there is a difference between withdrawing from occupied lands as Russia did when they pulled back from northern Ukraine in April and withdrawing from areas that were formally absorbed into Russia. Last week, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said: “Not one future leader of Russia, not one official will be able to reverse these decisions.”

“The Kremlin needs this phase of the war to end as soon as possible to repair itself and rebuild. They hope annexation shocks the international system, and their nuclear threats over ‘Russian territory’ will compel a ceasefire, or slow down support for Ukraine,” Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher focusing on Russia at the RAND Corporation said.

*Born in 1997, Volkan Isbasaran studied Political Science and International Relations at Yeditepe University and holds an MA in Political Science from Central European University. His research areas include terrorism, conflicts, and ethnic/religious minorities.