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How Russia's illegal annexation of Ukrainian regions could change the war

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Russia has officially expanded its territory by taking Ukrainian land. Vladimir Putin signed treaties with four occupied Ukrainian provinces, officially annexing them after staged referenda where many people were coerced to vote in favor of joining Russia. The ceremony came hours after an attack inside that occupied territory near Zaporizhzhia. That attack killed more than 20 people and wounded dozens more. The U.S. and much of the international community is calling the annexation a violation of international law. Here's White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: We will never recognize these illegal and illegitimate attempts at annexation. Regardless of Russia's claims, this remains Ukrainian territory, and Ukraine has every right to continue to fight for their full sovereignty.

FADEL: For more, I'm joined by Andrew Weiss. He's the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Welcome.

ANDREW WEISS: Great to be here.

FADEL: So what does Russia's annexation of these four occupied Ukrainian territories - what does it mean for the future of Russia's war?

WEISS: It's a really important moment. The Russian government has been on the defensive since the Ukrainians launched their counteroffensive at the end of August. And now the referenda and annexation moves today are basically Vladimir Putin's attempt to flip the script. He's trying to escalate the conflict, and he's trying to tell the Russian people he's at war with the West, not Ukraine, and that everything he's doing is somehow defensive. It's an upside-down set of logic, but it really does potentially change facts on the ground. It potentially makes this conflict more dangerous militarily, and it really digs him in. It sort of backs him into a corner.

FADEL: So another escalation, a broadening of what this war means. So at this point, with these land grabs in the midst of active conflict, is there a path at all for diplomacy to get to a place of peace?

WEISS: This is way too early to imagine any kind of diplomatic process that's meaningful. The Russians have never engaged in good faith in any diplomatic efforts since this war began in 2014. And now, by basically saying this is all part of Mother Russia, they're doing two things - one, they're trying to scare the West and Western publics and Western governments that things could get out of hand because now any attack in these parts of Ukraine are somehow tantamount to an attack on Mother Russia. And the other thing they're doing is basically saying no Russian lands could ever be given away. So, you know, Russia is not in the business of, you know, carving itself up and handing out presents. So Vladimir Putin has basically, you know, said here, I'm locking in. I'm not going to change what I'm doing.

FADEL: So as you said, Putin has dug in, and you say he's sort of backed up to a wall without any way to back out of this. And the West is saying, well, this is illegal. But that hasn't been a deterrent for Putin. Is there a deterrent that will work at this point?

WEISS: So I think the real deterrent is watching the determination of the people of Ukraine and their military as they defend themselves against this unprovoked invasion. The danger for everyone is that this conflict goes on and that there is no sort of decisive moment where Vladimir Putin acknowledges all is lost, this has been a horrible blunder of epic proportions, and he has to basically look for some kind of, you know, way out to kind of, you know, sneak out the back door and hope we don't, you know, we don't hold it against him. I think that's very improbable at this point. The real question is, you know, how much, you know, can either side endure? We're basically now in a pain contest between Ukraine on the one hand with its Western partners and Russia on the other.

FADEL: What about domestic pressure? I mean, this annexation comes after Putin gave this order to mobilize another 300,000 troops to fight in Ukraine. But a lot of people were running away from that draft. And there has been domestic criticism. He even admitted, unusually, to mistakes in implementing of that order, saying some wrong people had been drafted. Is there domestic pressure that could change the course of this war?

WEISS: So there's no doubt that Vladimir Putin is going all-in on the war by mobilizing Russian society. For the past 7 1/2 months, he's basically allowed the Russian public to live their lives and act as if nothing has changed, that there's not a big war going on. That's all different now. And everyone in the country is worried about their husbands, their sons, their brothers being summoned to go fight in this war. The real danger, of course, is that the Russian people are not going to solve our problem. This is - you know, we're in a contest with Vladimir Putin, and Vladimir Putin is not running for reelection anytime soon.

FADEL: Andrew Weiss is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thank you for your time.

WEISS: Great to be here. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.