Jul 19, 2022 - World

White House says Russia planning to annex large swaths of Ukraine

Putin attends a celebration of the 8th anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik via Getty

The U.S. has intelligence indicating the Kremlin is "reviewing detailed plans" to annex multiple Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said Tuesday.

Why it matters: The four regions — Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk — are contiguous and together would connect Russia with the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow occupied and annexed in 2014.

  • Annexing them would mean claiming large swaths of Ukraine's territory and fundamentally shifting the outlook for any peaceful resolution to the war.

The big picture: Ukrainian officials have been warning for months that Russia's shadow government in Kherson was issuing Russian passports, mandating the use of the Russian ruble, and potentially planning a "referendum" on joining Russia. The plan Kirby laid out, which echoes U.S. intelligence warnings made in May, would be even more drastic.

  • Russia has previously denied any intention to annex additional parts of Ukraine. The Kremlin decided against annexing Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014, opting instead to arm and support separatist "republics" there.
  • Russia took control of most of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in southern Ukraine in the early days of the war. In its current offensive in eastern Ukraine, Russia has cemented its control of Luhansk and is now focusing on Donetsk.

What he's saying: "Russia is beginning to roll out a version of what you could call an annexation playbook, very similar to the one we saw in 2014," Kirby said, citing "downgraded intelligence" as well as public reports.

  • "We know their next moves," he added, claiming the proxy Russian governments would organize fake referenda followed by an "illegal land grab."
  • Already, he said, Russia was limiting internet access in the occupied territories and targeting anyone who resists Russian control.
  • While Russia had not set a timeline for the potential referenda, they could come as early as September in conjunction with regional elections, Kirby said. He promised that the U.S. would and its allies would respond with stiff sanctions.

Between the lines: This would be a massive gamble for Russian President Vladimir Putin, as Russia still only controls around half of Donetsk and is facing Ukrainian counterattacks in Kherson and elsewhere.

  • If he does declare these areas to be Russian soil, Putin will dramatically raise the stakes of any future territorial losses, and could preclude any peace agreement that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky may find acceptable.
  • "We would remind Mr. Putin that over time he may prove unable to hold this territory. It's not a given," Kirby said.

What's next: Kirby said the White House would announce another package of weapons for Ukraine later this week, including additional High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) which have allowed Ukraine to strike Russian targets far beyond the frontlines.

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