Russia may be ready to annex breakaway territories

Russia thus used the ambiguous status of these breakaway territories in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia as a source of leverage with their pro-Western governments and with the West itself. This played into Moscow’s broader strategy of maintaining influence in these countries as a counterbalance to the West, just as Russia sought to counter EU and NATO expansion, all while maintaining a working (albeit tense) relationship with the West. By avoiding formally annexing these territories, Moscow was also able to lessen the indirect costs—namely economic sanctions and political isolation—while maintaining a steady foothold in the former Soviet space.

However, with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 and its protracted conflict in the country, Moscow’s sustaining such breakaway territories looks like an untenable strategy. The Kremlin’s working relationship with the West is all but destroyed, with Russia facing unprecedented sanctions and political isolation from the United States and EU. There is no longer a realistic approach for governments like Ukraine, Moldova, or Georgia to pursue a balanced relationship with Moscow.

In this context, the growing rumblings that territories such as the Donetsk People’s Republic, Luhansk People’s Republic, South Ossetia, and recently occupied regions including Kherson may be annexed by Russia should be taken seriously. Russia’s recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states immediately prior to its invasion of Ukraine sent just that message: that Moscow was no longer satisfied with the political status quo and that negotiation formats such as the Minsk talks were deemed as no longer viable by the Kremlin. Were Russia to annex these territories and others, this would mark a substantial shift not only in Moscow’s breakaway territory strategy but also in its entire way of doing business with the West and with pro-Western states in the former Soviet periphery.

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