This Friday, Russia officially annexed four Eastern Ukrainian territories, namely Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and Zaporozhye, making them a part of Russia and their people into Russian citizens.
The Russian government claimed that the residents of these territories chose to become part of Russia through their "free will" in a free, fair, and democratic referendum, although the governments of US, Ukraine, and their allies have decried the referendum as a sham and refused to recognise its legitimacy.
Meanwhile, the actual control of territory on the ground remains disputed as the bloody conflict remains ongoing.
Both Russian and Ukrainian sources reported on Friday that the city of Krasny Liman, an important railway hub in Donetsk, is alarmingly encircled by Ukrainian troops and suffering from constant Ukrainian shelling.
In addition, the Russians have lost full control of two Donetsk cities, Yampol and Drobyshevo, while the supply route between Krasny Liman and Svatovo is also being shelled by Ukrainian forces.
RT, a media outlet funded by the Russian government, described the situation as follows: "This is very unpleasant news, but we must look soberly at the situation and draw conclusions from our mistakes."
'Fog of war' makes the truth difficult to determine
The people of Eastern Ukraine have historically spoken Russian as well as Ukrainian, and since the NATO-backed 2014 Maidan coup they have faced severe ethnic repression, including laws restricting the use of the Russian language and crimes against humanity carried out by NATO-backed Ukrainian neo-Nazi military and paramilitary forces, as a result of which many of them have been pro-Russian separatists in a civil war against the NATO-backed Ukranian government.
According to foreign policy analyst Natylie Baldwin, "More than 75 percent of those living in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (two eastern regions of Ukraine predominantly populated by Russian-speakers) did not support the Maidan, while only 20 percent of people living in Crimea supported it."
On the other hand, since its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has shelled cities and murdered civilians in these Eastern Ukranian regions.
Commenting on this, Baldwin said, "Never ever could this pro-Russian population imagine Russia to shell their cities and ruin their lives. The tragedy of these people is twofold: first, their world was ruined symbolically by the Maidan, now, it is being destroyed physically by Russia."
Due to both the murder of Eastern Ukrainian civilians by Russian forces and the omnipresent threat of physical violence during wartime, it is possible either that, as many pro-NATO voices have articulated, there is no more significant pro-Russian sentiment among Eastern Ukranians and that the referendum is a fraud engineered by the Russian government, or that, alternatively, desperate Eastern Ukranians sought, as the perceived lesser evil, what meagre and incomplete protection they could find from Russia in the hopes of protecting themselves against further violence from both Ukraine and Russia itself.
As with many other phenomena during wartime, the Clausewitzian "fog of war" makes the truth difficult to determine.
Asserting the right to defend annexed territories
In his speech commemorating the annexation, Putin delivered a bizarre tirade against the so-called 'West.' Putin equated the 'West' with homosexuality and transexuality, describing these latter human realities in homophobic and transphobic terms and with the help of conspiracy theories that, ironically, are also employed by the ascendant far-right in Western countries.
Putin denounced the perceived rampant homosexuality and transexuality of the West in zealously religious terms as "pure Satanism." Putin also defended Russia's invasion of Ukraine in nationalist terms as a defense of Russia's culture.
In order to further justify these points he shares with his far-right opponents in Western countries, Putin appropriated leftist rhetoric and framed his struggle against Western powers as a struggle against colonialism and neo-colonialism.
However, Putin also stated, "There is no Soviet Union anymore; we cannot return to the past. Actually, Russia no longer needs it today; this isn't our ambition." In place of the Soviet Union's "socialism," or as detractors described it, "state capitalism" or "social imperialism," Putin advocated for a political will based on the vague categories of Russian "culture, religion, traditions, and language."
It is into the arms of this right-wing nationalism that Putin welcomed the people of the annexed territories, and it is in its name that he inaugurated them as citizens.
While it is incontrovertible that Putin is committed to a patriarchal nationalist political project, his self-righteous moral indignation and religious messianism obscure the tactical military advantage of the annexation at this point in the war.
In claiming the annexed territories as part of Russia and the people in the annexed territories as Russian citizens, Putin also asserted the right to defend the annexed territories and the people in them as he would Russia itself.
On this topic, Putin said, "We will defend our land with all the forces and resources we have, and we will do everything we can to ensure the safety of our people."
The increased threat of nuclear war
Many have interpreted Putin's promise to defend the newly annexed Russian land "with all the forces and resources we have" as a threat to use nuclear weapons.
In his speech, Putin also said, "The United States is the only country in the world that has used nuclear weapons twice, destroying the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. And they created a precedent."
This statement has also been interpreted by many as a threat to use nuclear weapons.
In a press conference on Thursday, a day before Putin's speech but in anticipation of the annexation, US Senator Lindsey Graham declared that any nuclear attack on Ukraine by Russia would be equivalent to a nuclear attack on "NATO itself" that would produce an "overwhelming" and "catastrophic" reply.
Graham said, "If that day ever comes, and I hope and pray it doesn't, [a nuclear strike] should be considered by NATO writ large and the United States as an attack by Russia on NATO itself."
In the press conference, Senator Graham and Senator Blumenthal unveiled legislation aimed at blocking foreign aid to any country that recognises the annexation referendum as legitimate.
In response to the annexation, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky announced on Friday that Ukraine is filing an expedited application to officially join NATO. If the expedited application is accepted and Ukraine officially becomes a NATO member, then in the case of a nuclear attack NATO would be obliged to respond in the manner suggested by Senator Graham, that is, with a reciprocal nuclear attack.
In addition, on Friday US President Joe Biden signed a bill into law that provides an additional $12.3 billion in military and economic aid to Ukraine in a desperate bid to prevent the Ukrainian government from shutting down. The bill will finance the federal government of Ukraine through 16 December and will also replenish Ukraine's stock of US arms and ammunition.
NATO had been playing with fire by lending support to a vehemently anti-Russian government in Ukraine following the Maidan coup, since Ukraine lies right at the border of Russia and Russia is a nuclear power. However, Russia, in its turn, began playing with fire with its invasion of a NATO-backed Ukraine, since most NATO allies are also nuclear powers. Within the logic of political realism wherein the violence of one force can only be contained by a greater force of violence, an escalation of violence is inevitable until either one force is exhausted or until both forces escalate their violence to apocalyptic proportions.