Transatlantic Take: Ankara, Berlin, Bucharest, Madrid, Paris, Warsaw, Washington

How Much of a Game-changer Is Russia’s Annexation of Ukraine’s Territories?

September 29, 2022
President Vladimir Putin is about to announce that the four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine where Moscow organized sham “referendums” in recent days—Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia—are being annexed into the Russian Federation.

This latest move by Putin, accompanied by the recently announced partial mobilization in Russia and more nuclear threats, marks a new phase in the war in Ukraine. Below, GMF experts give the view from different transatlantic capitals as to whether and how this will impact their stance on supporting Ukraine and countering Russia.

The Take from France

Gesine Weber, Research Analyst, Paris office

Seen from Paris, Russia’s organization of sham “referendums” in the four regions of eastern Ukraine it occupies and their annexation are an additional provocation, as is President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling. The line of the French government is clear: it denounces these “referendums” as a “parody” and does not see them as having any legal validity. In a press conference on Tuesday in Kyiv, Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna emphasized France’s support for tougher EU sanctions on Russia to target individuals involved in their organization. She also confirmed the delivery of new arms to Ukraine, without specifying the exact scope of this. Both measures are largely supported by the French public. In GMF’s new Transatlantic Trends survey, 67 percent of French respondents express support for stronger economic sanctions against Russia and 58 percent support increasing military supplies to Ukraine. Overall, the French stance remains unchanged, with a focus on three priorities: political and diplomatic action, humanitarian action and reconstruction, and fighting impunity. What might spark tensions with other European countries, though, is President Emmanuel Macron’s insistence on negotiations: according to him, the conflict will only end “around a table” with Putin.

The Take from Germany

Markus Ziener, Visiting Senior Fellow, Berlin office

Officially, the sham “referendums” have not changed Germany’s stance on the war in Ukraine. “We will not accept the result of these referenda and will continue to support Ukraine with undiminished force,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said. He also warned against the use of nuclear bombs. Asked whether President Vladimir Putin would carry out his threats, he replied: “Who knows? But like US President Joe Biden, I want to say very clearly in the direction of Russia: don’t do it!” But beyond the rhetoric, there is definitely concern in Berlin that the war is entering a new stage of escalation. There is an increased risk of a nuclear strike as soon as Moscow illegally annexes the occupied territories and considers them a part of Russia. This would give Putin the pretext to carry out such a strike. In addition, the incorporation of these parts of Donbas into Russia will make any peace negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv virtually pointless. President Volodymyr Zelensky will never accept a peace agreement in which he has to give up this part of Ukraine. Against this backdrop, Berlin’s balancing act of supporting Ukraine on the one hand and avoiding further escalation on the other is becoming even more complex.

The Take from Poland

Michal Baranowski, Senior Fellow and Director, Warsaw Office

The outcome of the sham “referendums” in Ukraine’s Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia regions was a forgone conclusion. How else could the people in these occupied territories “vote” under the barrel of a gun? Looking from Warsaw, this development signals Russian desperation in the face of the recent Ukrainian counteroffensive, but they do not change the overall strategic picture of war. The Polish view is that the annexation of these four regions by Russia, along with the threat of using nuclear weapons, is President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to freeze a war that he is losing at its current line of contact before Russian forces must retreat even further, and that he hopes to scare Western countries from further supporting Ukraine militarily. Fortunately, Putin’s tactic is unlikely to work. It will certainly not scare Poland. According to GMF’s new Transatlantic Trends survey, Polish citizens are the most likely to support sending military aid to Ukraine (80 percent), establishing a no-fly zone over the country (76 percent) or even moving forward with Ukraine’s NATO (71 percent) and EU memberships (76 percent). Warsaw is still not afraid of Putin.

The Take from Romania

Alina Inayeh, Advisor to GMF President, Bucharest office

Romania’s position on the war in Ukraine has been unequivocal throughout. It has not only supported the country alongside its NATO allies, but also offered the ports of Galati and Constanta as well as railways and roads for the transportation of Ukraine’s products, mainly grains, as an alternative to sea routes controlled or blocked by Russia. In line with this position, Romania does not recognize the legitimacy of the sham “referendums” in occupied zones in Ukraine, and it condemns their illegal annexation by Russia. This position is explained by Romania’s historical attitude to Russia, but also by its apprehension about such “referendums” given the host of secessionist tendencies in Transylvania in the country’s west. This is also why Romania is one of the very few countries that has not (so far) recognized Kosovo. Romania is seriously concerned about the fighting spilling over to more Ukrainian regions and closer to its long border with Ukraine. It is also keenly concerned about the war’s effects in the entire region—a feeling at least partially assuaged by the country’s strong loyalty to NATO. As Russia proceeds with the illegal annexation, Romania will be even more vocal in asking for a long-term substantial commitment of NATO to the region on land, air, and sea. 

The Take from Spain

Kristina Kausch, Senior Fellow, Brussels office

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has harshly condemned the Russian-organized sham “referendums” in occupied parts of Ukraine as heralding a new phase in the war in which “the aggressor starts to realize they are losing.” He vigorously underlined the need for European unity in support of Ukraine at this critical juncture. The same message—“We need more Europe”—is being spread these days by Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares. This stance mirrors Spanish public opinion, as shown by GMF’s new Transatlantic Trends survey. When it comes to managing relations with Russia, Spain is the EU country with the second-highest support (after Portugal) for working through the EU: 48 percent vs. an average of 36 percent for member states surveyed. Spain will hold the rotating EU Council Presidency in the second half of 2023 and is expected to seize the opportunity to demonstrate its ability to play in the premier league of global geopolitics at a critical moment. Already, while it has not attracted as much international attention as other supporters of Ukraine, Spain has provided substantial humanitarian and military aid to the country, and it ranks fifth among EU members when it comes taking in Ukrainian refugees.

The Take from Türkiye

Özgür ÜnlühisarcıklıDirector, Ankara office

Turkish officials did not comment on Russia’s partial mobilization or nuclear threats but they have strongly condemned the sham “referendums” the Kremlin organized in occupied Ukrainian regions. In a written statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has expressed concern about this illegitimate initiative and said that it will be rejected by the international community. The ministry also reiterated Türkiye’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, and it has said that Ankara is ready to contribute to a peaceful resolution of the conflict through negotiations. This follows President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s speech at the UN General Assembly in which he said: “We need to find a reasonably practical diplomatic solution that will give both sides a dignified way out of the crisis.” The latest developments do not change Türkiye’s stance in the conflict, which is pro-Ukraine (delivering military aid) but not anti-Russia (not joining sanctions). With its self-confidence boosted by its successful facilitation and meditation efforts during the grain deal and the prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine, Ankara continues to position itself as the likely facilitator of eventual peace talks.

The Take from the United States

Sophie ArtsProgram Officer, Security and Defense, Washington, DC

The Biden administration has made clear that it will not recognize the outcome of the illegal sham “referendums” in Russian-occupied Ukrainian regions or their annexation. On Friday, President Joe Biden issued a statement that “The United States will never recognize Ukrainian territory as anything other than part of Ukraine.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken has stressed that “the Ukrainians have every right to take [the occupied regions] back.” The administration sees Putin’s latest moves as evidence of desperation but is also taking seriously his willingness to escalate to the nuclear level, including under the pretext of defending annexed regions against Ukrainian forces. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has said that Russia’s “sham referendums” will not deter the United States from supporting Ukraine and that “any use of nuclear weapons will be met with catastrophic consequences for Russia.” Meanwhile, some pundits on the right are casting the administration’s rhetoric as escalatory. For now, support for Ukraine in Congress is holding, even as some Republicans raise questions about continued spending. This tracks with 60 percent of the US public supporting an increase in economic aid to Ukraine and 63 percent supporting an increase in military support and equipment, according to GMF’s new Transatlantic Trends survey. But if the midterm elections lead to a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, Ukraine aid could face serious headwinds.