Russia has four new regions, President Vladimir Putin claimed on Friday in a ceremony to annex more than 100,000 square kilometres of Ukraine – an area about twice the size of Nova Scotia, or 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory – that his troops have partly occupied since the war began.
This week the regions’ inhabitants voted, sometimes at gunpoint, in sham referendums that Ukraine and its allies have rejected as illegal. In his speech, Mr. Putin warned Kyiv to accept those votes as “the will of millions of people,” which his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, has said he will not do. Mr. Putin – who has previously threatened to use Russia’s nuclear weapons in the conflict – also said his forces would “protect our lands with every means at our disposal.”
Ukraine and its allies are carefully considering their next moves in a conflict that is almost certain to escalate. Here’s what you need to know.
War in Ukraine: An overview
This isn’t the first time Mr. Putin has laid claim to part of Ukraine in recent years. In 2014, seizing on the chaos after the ouster of Ukraine’s Kremlin-allied president, Russian forces invaded the Crimean Peninsula and staged a highly disputed vote to have it rejoin Russia. Ukraine and its allies, including Canada, consider Crimea to be occupied Ukrainian territory.
Since war broke out this past February, the Black Sea coast around Crimea and the eastern regions bordering Russia have seen the heaviest fighting. Many of those lands are under Russian control now, though Ukrainian counteroffensives have hemmed them in more successfully in recent weeks.
Luhansk is the name of the easternmost oblast, or province, of Ukraine, and also the name of its largest city. Together with Donetsk, it’s part of an industrial heartland called Donbas that, long before the war, had a large ethnic Russian population. In 2014, Russian-backed separatists declared themselves as the Luhansk People’s Republic, seizing control of part of the oblast but claiming it in its entirety. A 2015 peace deal de-escalated, but did not stop, the breakaway republic’s battles with Ukrainian forces. Then, this past February, Mr. Putin recognized it as a sovereign nation and send a “peacekeeping” force there, one of the provocations preceding the war.
As in Luhansk, Donetsk has a pro-Russian junta that declared itself a separate state in 2014, and was recognized by Mr. Putin earlier this year. But the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and its Russian backers control only about 60 per cent of the oblast itself. That now includes Mariupol, the port where Russian and Ukrainian troops spent months fighting for control of the city proper and a strategic steel factory. The siege ended in May when the Ukrainian defenders of the Azovstal factory surrendered and were taken to Russian-held territory.
The city of Kherson, the invaders’ first major conquest of the war, has been in Russian hands since March, when Crimean officials began spreading claims that Kherson’s people wanted reunification with Russia. Cementing control over Kherson’s oblast is important to Moscow’s war effort because it allows troops to move more easily from Crimea to Odesa, a Ukrainian-held city that Mr. Putin, citing its historic ties with Russia, sees as symbolically important.
“Zaporizhzhia” is the name of three things critical to the war: A city with a pre-war population of about 750,000 people, a nuclear power plant south of it – one of Europe’s largest – and the oblast that encompasses both. Russian troops are in control of only one of those things, the power plant, which they seized in March; since then, there has been heavy shelling in the area, for which Ukrainian and Russian forces blame each other. The plant’s reactors were shut down in September as Ukraine’s Energy Minister told The Globe and Mail it was close to a “Fukushima scenario,” referring to 2011′s nuclear disaster in Japan.
What happens to these four regions next?
- Pomp in Moscow: Mr. Putin was at the Kremlin on Friday for a signing ceremony to formally annex Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, whose Russian-approved leaders were also present. Russia’s parliament, which Mr. Putin controls, will at some point ratify treaties to incorporate the territories, which its leader says could happen by Oct. 4.
- Military draft: The Donetsk and Luhansk republics already had their own conscription policies when the war started, and Moscow has been calling up more and more of its reservists to fight in Ukraine. Once Russia’s military considers the annexed regions’ residents to be Russians, they might be forced to join up – unless those unwilling to do so can flee the country, as many men of fighting age have been doing already.
- Nuclear tensions: Russian officials have said they’ll consider the annexed regions part of the country’s nuclear umbrella, and when hostilities continue there – which is likely – the world will watch anxiously to see whether Mr. Putin carries out his threat to use tactical nuclear weapons.
The Globe and Mail, September 29, 2022