Authors: Katherine Lawlor and Mason Clark (Institute for the Study of War)

Kremlin Plans to Annex Southern Ukraine: Russian President Vladimir Putin likely intends to annex occupied southern and eastern Ukraine directly into the Russian Federation in the coming months to consolidate his control over these territories and possibly deter Ukrainian counterattacksThe Kremlin likely plans to annex much of the Ukrainian territory currently occupied by Russian forces—portions of Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts in the south and the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in the east that Russian forces and their proxies control. Conditions-setting to annex or recognize occupied Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk includes replacing local media with Kremlin-run media outlets, installing Russian internet and communications networks, forcibly transitioning local economies to the Russian ruble, kidnapping, executing, and replacing local Ukrainian officials with Russian collaborators, and likely hunting and eliminating anti-occupation activists and partisans.

Costs and Benefits of Annexation for Russia:

Outright annexation of Ukrainian territory would foreclose the resurrection of the legal frameworks outlined by the Minsk II accords, which depended on treating Russia’s proxy statelets as parts of Ukraine and requiring Kyiv to grant them both autonomy and the rights to participate in the Ukrainian political system. Putin’s recognition of the “independence” of those statelets immediately before the February invasion has already formally changed the situation, to be sure. If Putin annexes the occupied territories, therefore, he will have decided to give up the option of using proxies within the Ukrainian political system to resume the hybrid war approach he had taken toward Ukraine since 2014. Regardless of Putin’s reasoning, Russia cannot—and will not—accept a return to a pre-war status quo. If the Kremlin directly annexes Ukrainian territory, it will mark a fundamental departure in the Kremlin’s approach to Ukraine, from hybrid warfare and political manipulation to outright military coercion and, if possible, conquest.

Annexation of Ukrainian lands is likely the only “off-ramp” that Putin is interested in pursuing at this time. Even this face-saving option, which falls far short of the Kremlin's initial war aims of complete regime change in Kyiv, would be a devastating blow to Ukraine and is likely the minimum outcome that the Kremlin is willing to accept. If Putin can declare victory by annexing large swathes of Ukrainian territory, he can better sell the costs of the war to the Russian population and to any sympathetic global audiences. The Kremlin absurdly justified its unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine as defending the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics from Ukrainian “Nazi” aggression and an alleged planned genocide against Russian speakers. The Kremlin likely assesses it must therefore consolidate and justify its gains by annexing at least the currently occupied portions of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts if it seeks to maintain that narrative and claim that it achieved the war's stated objectives.

A Russian annexation would seek to present Kyiv with a fait accompli that precludes negotiations on territorial boundaries even for a ceasefire by asserting that Russia will not discuss the status of (illegally annexed through military conquest) Russian territory—the argument the Kremlin has used regarding Crimea since 2014. After annexing Ukrainian territory, the Kremlin will frame Ukrainian negotiators’ demands for the return of Ukraine’s sovereign territory as absurd requests for Russia to give up its own land and dismiss them.

The Kremlin likely intends to annex all of the territories it wants to incorporate into Russia at once, rather than stagger the annexation process. The Kremlin likely believes that mass annexation would minimize the longevity of international outrage.

The Kremlin will need to establish relatively comprehensive security and administration structures within its occupied territories before it can announce effective annexation. 

The Kremlin must also work to transform its military occupation of Ukrainian territories into a series of political administrations capable of governing newly minted Russian regions before it can formally annex those territories. This process will take time as the Kremlin crushes opposition movements, arrests or kills off local Ukrainian officials, eradicates local governance structures, and replaces them with Russian administrators or Ukrainian collaborators. The longer that Russian forces have to control and subdue occupied Ukrainian territory, the more difficult it will be for Ukraine to rebuild local administrative and governance structures in those areas if they can regain control. The political clock on Ukraine’s ability to regain control of the southeast is ticking.

The Kremlin also likely needs to address internal disagreements on administrative boundaries and organization before formally annexing Ukrainian territory. The head of the DNR claims that Mariupol is the territory of the Donetsk People's Republic forever.

Intended Effects of Annexation:

The Kremlin could threaten to use nuclear weapons against a Ukrainian counteroffensive into annexed territory to deter the ongoing Western military aid that would enable such a counteroffensive. The Kremlin has already falsely claimed that Ukrainian strikes on Russian territory—during an unprovoked war of Russian aggression against Ukraine—are somehow escalatory rather than a legal Ukrainian response under the laws of war. However, Russian nuclear doctrine clearly allows for nuclear weapons use in response to “aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” The Kremlin could frame a Ukrainian counteroffensive into annexed Ukrainian territory as a threat to the existence of the Russian state—such an absurd claim would be no less plausible than many other claims Russia has already made. Making that claim, however, likely necessitates Russian annexation of occupied territories, rather than creating additional proxy statelets in places like Kherson and Zaporizhia.

The Kremlin could believe that a nuclear threat would deter ongoing Western military aid that would enable such a Ukrainian counteroffensive. Ukraine and the West should not let that happen. The Kremlin has likely calculated that NATO would rhetorically and materially support Ukrainian counteroffensives into a hypothetical proxy statelet Kherson People’s Republic (or simply Russian-occupied Ukraine), but would not support Ukrainian attacks into the Kherson Oblast of Russia, for example.

The Kremlin may also believe that Kyiv would be unwilling to directly attack claimed Russian territory, particularly after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on March 27 that Ukraine would not try to recapture all Russian-held territory by force, arguing that it could lead to a third world war. Zelensky has repeatedly called for the restoration of the de facto borders as of February 23, the day before Russia’s latest invasion. The Kremlin could conceivably believe that annexation would prevent Ukrainian counteroffensives, even without an explicit nuclear threat.

Military Supporting Effort:

In order to enable the annexation of occupied Ukrainian territories, the Kremlin must accomplish the following military objectives:

  • Hold and consolidate control of occupied territory. This objective necessitates the disruption of partisan activities and the defense of held territories.
  • Stop Ukraine from retaking additional territory. The Kremlin will likely order Russian forces to settle into defensive positions once Kremlin officials accept that the Russian campaign in Donbas has reached its culmination point—if they ever do.

If Putin annexes occupied territory and the conflict settles in along new front lines, the Kremlin could reconstitute its forces and renew Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in the coming years, this time from a position of greater strength and territorial advantage.

The West must take seriously the real and likely threat that Russia will annex southeastern Ukraine and the expand Russian nuclear doctrine to cover that newly annexed territory. Russia’s annexation plans are not guaranteed to succeed. They depend on consolidating control of occupied territory, establishing administrative capabilities, and preventing a Ukrainian counteroffensive. The West must do what it can to deter Putin’s expansionism while also preparing an answer that offers Ukraine more than capitulation.

Ukraine and its Western partners likely have a narrow window of opportunity to support a Ukrainian counteroffensive into occupied Ukrainian territory before the Kremlin annexes that territory (or brings up additional forces). This window of opportunity is not necessarily obvious. In a military sense, Ukrainian forces should begin their counteroffensive before Russian forces decide that their campaign has culminated and begin to dig into more orderly and possibly morale-boosting defensive positions. Poor morale and worse leadership have soundly degraded Russian forces; Ukraine should ideally counter-attack at the time of maximum Russian disorder before Russian forces have time to fully go over to the defensive and dig in.

The political and ethical consequences of a longstanding Russian occupation of southeastern Ukraine would be devastating to the long-term viability of the Ukrainian state and necessitate Western support for a more immediate Ukrainian counteroffensive. Every day that occupied Ukraine remains under Russian control is another day of horrific human rights abuses, targeted degradation of Ukrainian governance structures, and “filtration” of civilian populations. If Ukrainian forces do not retake southeastern Ukraine before Moscow annexes that territory, Kyiv may find that the southeast has become irreparably mired in the same situation that Crimea has faced since 2014.



Add new comment