Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move Friday to annex parts of southern and eastern Ukraine amid Moscow’s war in the country has elevated the stakes of the conflict, threatening to bring the Kremlin’s struggling military campaign closer to the doorsteps of the West.
The stunning move has prompted a flurry of activity across the globe, including new U.S. and Group of Seven (G-7) sanctions targeting Russian government and military officials and their family members, international condemnation, calls for more weapons for Kyiv and a fresh push from Ukraine to join NATO.
But Putin’s actions — an indication he has dug in his heels in his military campaign against Ukraine — have much broader and longer-term repercussions for the future, experts say. What exactly those will be, however, are hard to discern, with experts expressing a deep uncertainty over where the situation will go from here.
“I think there will be continued warnings about breaking any of the red lines that have been put down. And there will be, I think, further strengthening of sanctions … Beyond that, it’s hard to anticipate exactly what might happen,” said career ambassador Thomas Pickering, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations as well as Russia.
Putin on Friday signed four “ascension treaties” to annex the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine after holding sham referendums in the areas.
“This is the will of millions of people,” Putin told hundreds of dignitaries amid a lavish ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow.
Much of the world, including members of the G-7 and the European Union, have already vowed to never recognize the land grab, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the move a “farce.”
“The entire territory of our country will be liberated,” Zelensky promised in a pre-recorded video released after Putin’s speech.
The annexations are the biggest territory grab in Europe since World War II and come as Putin has grown increasingly aggressive in his rhetoric due to a markedly successful Ukrainian counteroffensive earlier this month that took back large swaths of ground and forced Moscow’s forces to retreat.
Putin continued that saber-rattling in a speech laden with anti-Western sentiments, pledging to defend the newly claimed regions with “all available means,” a non-veiled threat to use nuclear weapons.
Russia has dangled the threat of an attack with a nuclear weapon since the start of its invasion of Ukraine, but the new land steal has spiked fears over how Moscow will respond to attacks in these territories now declared part of the Kremlin.
“Would he actually go to the use of nuclear weapons? Nobody knows. But it remains obviously something that he’s unprepared now to take off the table,” Pickering told The Hill.
Another question raised is whether the Russians will stick to their messaging that taking the eastern-most area of Ukraine known as the Donbas region remains the limited objective of their invasion, as suggested in Putin’s speech. The Kremlin has focused on taking the area since its failed campaign to topple Kyiv, but it’s unclear whether Moscow will be open to ending the war should that be achieved.
“Would that in its own way lead to discussions that could take place diplomatically over next steps that might tone things down? I think that’s a very optimistic view, but a moment not very likely given Mr. Putin’s dug in responses on every development that has taken place of upping the ante,” Pickering noted.
Also undetermined is the renewed debate over whether NATO should allow Ukraine to join after the country on Friday announced it will file an expedited application to the military alliance, which Kyiv has sought to enter since Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
The United States quickly urged that such a process “should be taken up at a different time,” according to national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
“Right now, our view is that the best way for us to support Ukraine is through practical, on-the-ground support in Ukraine and that the process in Brussels should be taken up at a different time,” Sullivan told reporters Friday.
But Jonathan Katz, director of Democracy Initiatives and a senior fellow with The German Marshall Fund of the United States, said Ukraine’s NATO bid is a serious application in the wake of Putin’s speech and amid his ongoing desperate bids to make gains in a war that has become bogged down in its seventh month.
“It is not far-fetched that Ukraine — which will need security guarantees going forward, given Russia’s unrelenting war and Mr. Putin’s unwillingness to end this cycle of violence against Ukraine — they will need to be given some type of security guarantee and NATO is the place to do that,” Katz said.
“It must be taken seriously. … how can anyone think that Ukrainians, or the West, the transatlantic community, can be safe with Mr. Putin doing what he’s doing,” he added.
The issue will likely come up at a meeting of defense ministers for the North Atlantic Council Oct. 12 and 13 at NATO Headquarters in Brussels.
For now, U.S. and Western officials say they are focusing on crippling Russia through economic means, with the Biden administration on Friday announcing a new round of sanctions.
The sanctions, which come from the departments of Treasury, Commerce and State and in coordination with members of the G-7, are meant to target Moscow’s decisionmakers, Putin’s allies and entities that support Russia’s military-industrial complex.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the sanctions are a clear warning that there will be “costs for any individual, entity, or country that provides political or economic support to Russia as a result of its illegal attempts to change the status of Ukrainian territory.”
One thing’s certain in the aftermath of Putin’s move: continued U.S. support to Ukraine.
The House on Friday passed a stopgap spending bill to stave off a government shutdown that included another $12.3 billion in aid for Ukraine.
News also broke Friday that the Pentagon was preparing to step up efforts to train and equip Ukrainian troops through a proposal to create a new command based in Germany, as The New York Times reported. Such a command, which would be led by a top U.S. general, would streamline the current patchwork of training and assistance given to the Ukrainian military by the U.S. and allies since Russia attacked the country in February, according to the Times.
And House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Michael McCaul (R-Texas) on Friday called for the U.S. and its allies to send Ukraine weapons it has so far held off from providing over fears doing so could escalate Russia’s ire.
“I urge the Biden administration to finally provide longer-range artillery, like [Army Tactical Missile System]. And I also urge key allies to immediately transfer much-needed systems, including German Leopard tanks and Marder infantry fighting vehicles,” McCaul said in a statement.
Earlier this week the administration pledged another $1.1 million in lethal aid to the embattled country, bringing the total Pentagon commitment to Ukraine to more than $16 billion since February.
The latest dollars will go to contracts for weapons to be delivered over the next several years — a signal that the U.S. believes Russia will continue to threaten Ukraine and the region for years to come.