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The Kremlin Shows New Vulnerabilities
The annexation of Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine threatens to escalate the war in unexpected ways. Russia has repeatedly emphasized any attacks on its territories amount to some kind of red line. They have even signaled a possible nuclear response. Former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev wrote on Telegram (as reported by The New York Times), “Encroaching on the territory of Russia is a crime, the commission of which allows you to use all the forces of self- defense.” So, the (unlawful) annexation of Ukrainian territory may open the door for Russian justifications for further escalations in the war.
Still, Russian efforts to annex any territory at this time indicate a sense of desperation. Nobody in the international community will take any referendums made under duress of war with most of the population evacuated seriously. Some close allies to the Kremlin might show official support, but nobody will genuinely accept the referendums as legally binding. The international community expects Ukraine to fight for its territory whether Russia holds any referendums or not. Nonetheless, Russia will likely use attacks on annexed territory as a justification for conscription of its population. Indeed, they have already called up members of its reserves.
Even so the annexation of Ukrainian territories increases security risks for Russia. If Russia claims attacks on the Donbas are an attack on Russia proper, it reduces the risk to Ukraine to broaden its assault. So far Biden has resisted sending longer range weapons, because Russia might view them as escalating the conflict. However, if Russia unjustly believes that line was already crossed, it opens the door for the West to provide more powerful weapons. Of course, it’s also possible the Kremlin merely wants to strengthen its hand before negotiations. Either way Russian behavior shows new vulnerabilities and desperation.
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