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Understanding Putin's latest moves as he annexes even more of Ukraine

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today Russian President Vladimir Putin signed treaties illegally annexing even more of Ukraine, and he's vowing to protect the areas by, quote, "any means necessary." The annexation of these territories has been widely condemned by the U.S. and by much of the international community. To try to understand what Putin's latest moves mean, we're joined now by Dara Massicot. She's a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, focusing on defense issues in Russia. She joins us on the line from Arlington, Va. Welcome.

DARA MASSICOT: Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: So first, I just have a basic question for you. Why is Putin even doing this? Like, how does it help him either domestically or internationally?

MASSICOT: Well, from my vantage point - and I look at the Russian military - they need the war to end at an intense level, like they've been fighting it for the last few months. They need it to end immediately. And from their perspective, the quickest way to do that is to annex these territories and immediately start discussing how they're going to defend them with all means possible - which is a vague reference to Russia's nuclear arsenal - and then offering a poisoned-chalice cease-fire to Kyiv that Kyiv cannot accept. And the goal of this is to bring the fighting to a close on their terms - to buy them time to repair and regenerate.

CHANG: But Russia doesn't actually militarily control much of the territory that Putin has now annexed. So how much does all of this risk backfiring on him, do you think?

MASSICOT: That is a very astute observation, and there are several logic bombs within the annexation that he just announced today. You are correct. Russia does not control the entirety of those Ukrainian oblasts. So essentially, what he's just done by annexing the territories is admit that there are Ukrainian forces on, quote-unquote, "Russian territory." Unfortunately, for his logic, his forces in those areas are not in a position to force Ukrainian army units out of the picture. They're exhausted and depleted.

CHANG: Right. But he is vowing - Putin is vowing to protect the newly annexed territories by, quote, "all available means." As you point out, there's a threat here - a veiled threat, at least - that may include a nuclear weapon. How real is that threat?

MASSICOT: Well, this is part of the playbook that they use. They did this after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. This is part of their plan. In terms of how realistic it is - in the short term, a few things will influence that decision-making. I think, right now, it's pretty low probability, and I say that because they did opt to mobilize. If they believed that they did not have an operational way forward on the battlefield, they wouldn't have undertaken the very politically risky decision to order a mobilization. My assumption is that they're going to try to use these forces to stabilize their holdings that they have right now and just hold onto what they've taken from Ukraine. So if that succeeds, then he does not need to use other tools to escalate. However, it's very risky.

CHANG: Even as Russia annexes these regions, the Ukrainian counteroffensive continues. If Ukraine continues to overrun Russian forces in territories that Russia is declaring as its own now, what does that mean for Putin? Is he backed into a corner?

MASSICOT: He is. He has backed himself into a corner with this annexation, both politically and not having the means to negotiate with Kyiv moving forward and also the domestic picture at home.

CHANG: Well, if Putin has burned bridges, does that raise the risk that he does something catastrophic here?

MASSICOT: We are, in my view, heading into unchartered waters. The fact that he has taken the step of ordering a what he calls partial mobilization, this is a pretty extreme step in terms of the risks of blowback to him inside Russia. My concern is that if this does not work, what options does he have left to try to force a closure to this war before it gets worse for Russia?

CHANG: Right.

MASSICOT: And I worry that that could be targeted cyberattacks against Ukraine and its supporters. I saw the Russian defense minister making veiled threats against NATO's satellite constellation. And then there is the specter of nuclear coercion. But I do note that, even if it gets to that point, there's a lot of signals that will be picked up on before such weapons could be used. So signaling the intent, moving them around, demonstrating the use, having an exercise. It won't be a bolt from the blue, but we are entering into a dangerous new phase.

CHANG: That is Dara Massicot, senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. Thank you very much.

MASSICOT: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Kathryn Fox
Bridget Kelley
Bridget Kelley is the Supervising Senior Editor of NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, All Things Considered.