“He’s not going to scare us nor intimidate us,” President Joe Biden said of Putin. “Putin’s actions are a sign he is struggling, the sham referendum he carried out, and his routine he put on … the United States is never going to recognize this, and quite frankly the world is not going to recognize it either.”
Leaders from across Europe read from the same playbook, pledging to support Ukraine and punish Russia for subverting international law by attempting, again, to steal Ukrainian territory.
The U.K.’s Chief of Defense Staff, Adm. Sir Tony Radakin, who spoke to reporters Friday during a visit to Washington, called the annexation “the invented reality of Putin, and the actual reality is that he’s declared these four territories as part of Russia, but he doesn’t even have control of those four territories.”
The swift rejection of Putin’s annexation announcement and his hints that he could use nuclear weapons show how global perception of his military and its competence have changed since the start of the war. His reputation, once feared, has been so damaged by his disastrous invasion that the threats he has used for so long to shape the geopolitical narrative no longer carry the power they once did.
Moscow has faced a torrent of setbacks and humiliations since Ukrainians launched their two-pronged counteroffensive this month. Rapid gains using modern, NATO-furnished weapons forced massive and panicked Russian retreats around the city of Kherson, pushing Russian forces back into their own country or into several shrinking pockets inside Ukraine.
The forecast for Russian forces over the next few weeks and months is equally grim, as conscripts with little training head to the front to face battle-hardened Ukrainians backed by new Western equipment, with more shipments arriving weekly.
Videos have emerged online of Russian officers telling conscripts to bring their own medical supplies and sleeping bags to the front, as Moscow is expected to leave its troops unsupported in the field.
“Russia doesn’t have enough people to crew the equipment that they’ve got,” Radakin said. “The equipment they’ve got is quite substantial, but much of it is ancient and in a bad condition. And then [Putin] had to go through this partial mobilization…you then start to see a feature of this mobilization is not people rushing to recruitment offices, but it’s people rushing to leave the country.”
A senior Defense Department official, who like others in this story requested anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said there have been no significant moves by Russian forces either before or after Putin’s speech on Friday, further suggesting that nothing at all had changed on the ground, at least in the Kremlin’s favor.
In fact, Russian troops in the city of Lyman in Donetsk Oblast — an area Putin on Friday said was now part of Russia — have been almost completely surrounded by Ukrainian forces who have cut off supply lines to the garrison. On Friday, Ukrainian commanders began calling for the Russian forces there to negotiate a surrender.
Lyman has for months been a key logistics and supply hub for Russian forces fighting in the country’s east, and its loss would further cripple the already stretched Russian resupply lines in areas increasingly contested by Ukrainian forces.
The continued loss of territory that Russia now claims as its own, along with the new sanctions packages announced by the U.S. and U.K. on Friday, will further squeeze the Kremlin’s ability to wage war and undermine the army’s ability to hold ground.
“Russia will struggle to hold the territory it claims to have annexed,” the Institute for the Study of War said in an analysis Friday. “Putin likely intends annexation to freeze the war along the current frontlines and allow time for Russian mobilization to reconstitute Russian forces.”
The institute, along with the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, also generated a map on Friday showing that the four territories ready to be annexed actually include wide swaths of land still controlled by Ukraine.
While leaders have warned that declaring the territories part of Russia could serve as a pretext for escalating the war, Putin’s options are just as limited as they were before his announcement.
Ukraine has hobbled Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and ship captains now avoid the coastline out of fear of being struck by missiles. The Russian air force mostly shies away from flying over Ukrainian airspace, and the Kremlin is woefully short of allies willing to enter the conflict. That leaves his ground force, which he is now stocking with untrained conscripts.
And even though Putin and other Russian officials have hinted at deploying tactical nuclear weapons, the U.S. assesses the probability as low. “We’ve not seen anything that indicates we should change our posture,” one senior DoD official said.
One European diplomat pointed out that Russian warnings against attacking the annexed territories ring hollow, and not only because Putin is already losing ground in those regions.
“Ukraine has hit Russian targets in Crimea several times, and Putin didn’t respond even though he claims Crimea is now part of Russia, too,” the diplomat said.
And more Western weapons are funneling into Ukraine. At the White House, national security adviser Jake Sullivan noted the $1.1 billion arms package announced this week, “and we expect to have another announcement of immediate security assistance to announce next week.”
The package will be worth several hundred million dollars, an administration official confirmed to POLITICO.
Drawing the aid out ensures that Ukraine can absorb the shipments of tens of thousands of artillery rounds, radars and armored vehicles, but also maintains the “psychological impact” of announcing regular packages of NATO-caliber weaponry to bolster Ukrainian allies and depress the morale of Russian forces and leadership, the official said.
Putin is trying to raise that morale, but his bluster on Friday is little more than a “fiction” of Russia’s strength and competence, Radakin said. He cautioned against overreacting.
That fiction “is a feature of weakness, and the pressure that Russia is under,” he said. “We’ve got to be very careful in responding to fictions.”
Lara Seligman contributed to this report