With annexation plans, Putin escalates a battle of wills with the West.

As President Vladimir V. Putin plans to carry out his threat on Friday to declare that some 40,000 square miles of eastern and southern Ukraine will become part of Russia, it is not clear whether even Russia’s staunchest allies will recognize his claim to the territory.

Russian forces only partly control the land Mr. Putin is seeking to add to the Russian Federation, and the announcement is expected as Ukrainian forces press ahead with attacks in the very regions that Mr. Putin will claim are part of Russia.

But by annexing the parts of Ukraine that his troops occupy and then framing the war as an existential fight for the survival of the Russian state, Mr. Putin can try to shift the political focus from his army’s frontline losses to a plane where he seems to feel most confident: a battle of wills with the West.

“He thinks he can win,” Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a telephone interview from Moscow. “He is provoking an escalation of the war, transferring it to some new status.”

In a brief televised appearance on Thursday, Mr. Putin did not mention his annexation plans but sought to portray himself as being on the right side of history, asserting that “the formation of a more just world order is taking place.”

“Unipolar hegemony is inexorably collapsing,” Mr. Putin said. “This is an objective reality that the West categorically refuses to accept.”

Once Mr. Putin declares Ukrainian territory to be an inextricable part of Russia — a declaration that Russia’s rubber-stamp Parliament and constitutional court are expected to approve by next week — he will rule out any negotiations over that area’s future status, analysts said.

And after going through with the annexation, Mr. Putin may also declare that any future Ukrainian military action there threatens Russian territorial integrity — a threat, he said last week, to which Russia’s nuclear-armed military may respond with “all the means at our disposal.”

“This is not a bluff,’’ he added.

In recent days, Mr. Putin and the Russian state news media have escalated their rhetoric about the primary enemy being the West — which, in their telling, is using Ukraine as a proxy force to try to destroy Russia.

The official choreography planned for Friday in Moscow echoes the festivities of March 18, 2014, when Mr. Putin annexed Crimea. On that day, he signed a treaty of accession with the Ukrainian peninsula’s Russian-installed leaders, delivered a defiant speech at the Kremlin and then rallied Russians at an evening concert in Red Square.

But this time the context is far more volatile and grave. While Russia captured Crimea without large-scale fighting, Mr. Putin’s annexation will signal an escalation of a war that has killed tens of thousands. While most Russians cheered the annexation of Crimea, seeing it as a genuine part of Russia, there is little evidence that the broader public is convinced that the four regions now being annexed hold similar significance.

And while Russia had already taken over Crimea when the Kremlin decreed the annexation, Ukraine still holds much of two of the regions being annexed on Friday, Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia. That raises a key question before Mr. Putin’s Friday speech: Will he threaten to use devastating force to compel Ukraine to withdraw from what the Kremlin will characterize as Russian territory?

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/30/world/europe/with-annexation-plans-putin-escalates-a-battle-of-wills-with-the-west.html