The Irish Times view on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: dangerous escalation

The illegal annexation of four Ukrainian provinces confirms that Vladimir Putin’s response to recent battlefield humiliations is to raise the stakes

Vladimir Putin’s formal annexation of four Ukrainian territories had been sign-posted for weeks, but that does not lessen the dramatic escalation it represents. The Russian president has followed the same playbook he employed in Crimea in 2014, when a sham “referendum” was used as a pretext for the incorporation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory into Russia. Today, as with Crimea in 2014, the move to annex Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions – which together make up 15 per cent of Ukraine’s total area – is nothing more than an illegal land-grab. Parts of that territory, including swathes of Kharkiv region recently liberated in a Ukrainian counter-offensive, are not even under the control of Russian forces.

What Putin presents as a victory – one he celebrated at a formal signing ceremony at the Kremlin yesterday – is in fact a defensive gambit that reflects Russia’s faltering fortunes on the battlefield. At a time when Russia’s depleted, demoralised soldiers are struggling to hold back a Ukrainian advance on two fronts, Putin’s annexation is designed to deter further Ukrainian offensives and to intimidate the West into halting its arms transfers to Kyiv. Russia would regard any attack on the annexed lands as an attack on Russia itself, Putin said on Friday, promising to “protect” that territory “with all the forces and means at our disposal”. It is the second time in as many weeks that Putin has issued a threat of nuclear war. This one was accompanied by a fiery, rambling tirade about what he regards as the historical injustice of the Soviet collapse.

Coming after the announcement of partial mobilisation last week, the annexation confirms that Putin’s response to recent battlefield humiliations is to raise the stakes. This, the largest forcible takeover of land in Europe since the second World War, makes the situation even more dangerous and unpredictable than it already was. A nuclear attack by Russia in Ukraine would be likely to result in some kind of western military response, bringing Russia and the West to the brink of war. Putin calculates that that possibility will be enough to cause the West’s resolve to crumble.

But there are some things the annexation does not change. The four provinces in question are still part of Ukraine. Kyiv will continue to defend its territory. And Russia is still losing the war. Indeed, Putin has raised the stakes for himself as much as he has for the West. Public protests against his botched mobilisation will have rattled the Kremlin, and a recent acknowledgment by Putin himself of Chinese and Indian concerns about his invasion show that international tolerance for his war has its limits. Those foreign and domestic pressures may yet force Putin to pull back, but for now the only certainty is that the horror being inflicted on the people of Ukraine has no end in sight.