By annexing the Ukrainian territories, Russia could name any efforts to retake them as direct attacks on its territory thereby increasing the risk of direct military confrontation between itself and NATO.
President Vladimir Putin is set to formally annex around 15 percent of Ukrainian territory after referendums on joining Russia in areas controlled by Russian forces or Russian-backed separatists. The referendums come after Russia suffered one of the most significant setbacks of the war when Ukrainian forces started a counteroffensive in September.
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Putin will likely announce the accession of occupied regions to the Russian Federation during his address to parliament today.
How will it help Russia?
Russia organised polls in occupied areas of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in Ukraine's east and southeast amid the ongoing fighting.
Russian-installed officials in the four occupied regions of Ukraine reported huge majorities on Tuesday in favour of becoming part of Russia after five days of voting in so-called referendums that Kyiv and the West denounced as a sham.
The head of the upper house of the Russian parliament said the chamber might consider incorporating the four regions into Russia on October 4.
Ukraine urged the EU to impose new punitive sanctions in response to votes it said were often carried out at gunpoint.
By annexing the Ukrainian territories, Russia could name any efforts to retake them as direct attacks on its territory, thereby increasing the risk of direct military confrontation between itself and NATO.
Can the West stop Putin?
Neither the West nor Ukraine can stop Putin from claiming the regions, though the United States and its allies say they want Ukraine to defeat Russia on the battlefield - and will help it do so by supplying weapons, but not NATO troops.
The United States is prepared to impose additional economic costs on Russia in conjunction with US allies if Moscow moves forward with annexing portions of Ukrainian territory, the White House said.
After imposing severe sanctions on Russia, though, there is not much economic punishment left to inflict unless the United States could get China and India to agree to some cap on the price of Russian energy.
The West could send more advanced weapons to Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukraine had received the United States' sophisticated air defence systems, known as National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS).
Zelenskyy has repeatedly warned that "pseudo-referendums" on annexation by Russia would destroy any chance of peace talks.
One of the senior figures in his administration, Mykhailo Podolyak, called on Tuesday for any referendums to be met by an increase in international economic sanctions on Russia and increased arms supplies to Ukraine, including Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, a guided missile with a range of 300 km.
Which land will be annexed?
Russia plans to annex around 15 percent of Ukraine that its forces control and about 3 percent of Ukraine that it does not control - including frontlines where Ukrainian soldiers are still fighting, for example, in the Donetsk region.
The areas include:
Referendums were held in 2014 in the two areas on secession from Ukraine.
Taken together, Russia would be annexing at least 90,000 square km of Ukrainian territory. That is an area around the exact size of Hungary or Portugal.
Russia, which recognised Ukraine's post-Soviet borders in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, annexed Crimea in 2014. With Crimea and the territory in the four other areas, Russia would have annexed at least one-fifth of Ukrainian territory.
HOW QUICKLY COULD FORMAL ANNEXATION HAPPEN?
Fast. After the referendums, the Russian-backed leaders of the regions could ask to be included in Russia. Putin could swiftly approve, and the legislation in Moscow would be passed quicker.
After Russian forces, on February 27, 2014, took control of Crimea, which has an ethnic Russian majority and was transferred to Ukraine in Soviet times, a referendum on joining Russia was held on March 16.
Crimea's leaders declared a 97 percent vote to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. Russia formally added Crimea on March 21, less than a month after invading it.
What does Putin say?
Putin says Kyiv has persecuted the Russians and the Russian speakers of Ukraine and that he will never give them up to "executioners". Ukraine denies it has persecuted the Russian speakers, many of whom look to Moscow.
The Kremlin chief denies a distinct Ukrainian identity, saying it is an artificial construct partly the result of Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, who, after the Red Army took Kyiv, instituted the borders of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic after the collapse of the Russian empire.
In the 2001 Ukrainian census, 17 percent of people identified themselves as Russian, with 78 percent identifying as Ukrainian. Ukrainian is the country's most spoken language, followed by Russian.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine began in 2014 after a pro-Russian president was toppled in Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and Russia annexed Crimea, with Russian-backed forces fighting Ukraine’s armed forces.
According to the UN Human Rights Office, 14,000 people were killed in eastern Ukraine between 2014 and the end of 2021, including 3,106 civilians.
First Published: IST