On September 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed “accession treaties” formalising Russia’s “annexation” of four occupied regions in Ukraine, “Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk”.
This is on the basis of a forced referendum.
President Putin and the heads of the regions of Ukraine who were present at the function signed the treaties for the four to join Russia.
The treaties were signed after "referendums" organised for the regions to join which were alleged to be rigged.
This horizontal escalation first occurred in the military domain which followed occupation of Ukrainian territory by Russia by political annexation.
Russia’s annexation of occupied territories is essentially seen as an attempt to politically assimilate these lands which are Ukraine sovereign territory since breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The UN General Assembly passed a resolution by a large majority on October 12, which called on countries not to recognise the four regions of Ukraine and demanded that Moscow reverse the "attempted illegal annexation".
Implications of Annexation
Diplomatic and Political One implication of annexation is evident in political and diplomatic fields in terms of the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly calling for Russia’s reversal of the annexation in a resolution passed on October 12.
Horizontal Escalation. As a horizontal escalation this has multiple consequences with Moscow having to defend sovereignty and Ukraine in turn having to regain, “lost territories.”
Horizontal escalation can also be seen as building of an anti Russia alliance with NATO support to Ukraine.
From the military perspective the Ukraine War may now become one between Russia and NATO in a proxy or support role of Ukraine so far but has portends of dragging the alliance into a potential war with Moscow.
In this context the vertical escalation in the nuclear dimension also comes into play which is a dangerous portend.
President Vladimir Putin during a ceremony related to accession of occupied territories in Ukraine promised to “protect” the newly annexed lands “with all the forces and means at our disposal,” indicating the possible use of nuclear weapons.
Russia Defines Political Objective. On the other end of the spectrum annexation of the regions defines Russia’s political and strategic objectives for this phase of the war.
The Luhansk and Donetsk were in any case defacto annexed by Moscow but Ukraine continued to retain sovereignty.
On the other hand, Kherson is important for Russia for a land link to Crimea while Zaporizhzhia with the nuclear plant is another significant area which can play upon as an escalation factor due to extension of the conflict in close proximity of the Plant.
The importance of the issue was evident as Director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Grossi discussed security and safety of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant with Russian President Vladimir Putin on October 11, just two days after fighting in proximity of the plant.
Indicator of Limits of Russian Objectives? Russian President Vladimir Putin had indicated that the objective of the Special Military Operation was to unite the Russian origin people in the erstwhile Soviet states. By limiting the so called annexation to Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk it is evident that he has limited aims at least for this phase to what has been achieved and which also meets the strategic objectives.
Conclusion – Multiple Possibilities of Escalation and De-escalation
These developments open multiple possibilities either way - Escalation and De-escalation.
De-escalation first with winter fast approaching military operations in Ukraine are likely to be extremely difficult, though Ukrainian armed forces with superior logistics support provided by the US and NATO members may be able to make some gains against a weakened Russian resistance.
Russian President’s declaration of annexation as a sign of domestic victory by achieving these objectives before the winter could be an opening for negotiations though Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky has refuted the possibility of the same.
On the other hand, a meeting between the Turkish President Recep Erdogan and the Russian President Putin on the side lines of the CICA summit in Kazakhstan on October 13th may open some possibilities.
Post winter however the scope for escalation remains high. Russian mobilisation of forces for operations in Ukraine would mean some 200,000 odd accretion to the fighting strength post Winter in 2023.
With these numbers, Russia could first neutralize Ukraine counter offensives and attempt to expand the gains made in 2022
Thus, negotiations as many have warned are crucial to avoid a catastrophe in 2023 if Russia and NATO contest in Ukraine.