How is the war in eastern Ukraine developing and, above all, what is Putin planning with the occupied territories? The choice of a flag could be an important indication of this. At least that’s what US military experts say.

Having captured the Ukrainian oblasts (districts) of Luhansk and Donetsk, Russian troops are now advancing steadily towards Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Putin’s army has already occupied a large area around 25 kilometers east of the city, and in the south of the former megacity, in the direction of the Donbass, some parts of the Kharkiv region have already been occupied by the Russians.

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According to the renowned US think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW), the Russian occupation authorities in the Kharkiv district have now declared that the region is an “inalienable part of Russian soil”. According to the current analysis by US military experts, this indicates that the Kremlin probably intends to annex the Kharkiv district in whole or in part.

The ISW also sees the fact that the Russian occupation government in Kharkiv has announced a new flag for the occupation regime as a clear indication of this. The flag features the Russian imperial double-headed eagle and symbols from the 18th-century Kharkiv coat of arms. At that time, Kharkiv was part of the Russian Tsarist Empire.

“The rapid establishment of a civilian administration by the occupying Kharkiv region government on July 6 and the imposition of martial law in the occupied Kharkiv region on July 8 are further signs that the Kremlin is aggressive in legitimizing and consolidating power of the occupying Kharkiv region government moves forward to support this broader territorial objective,” reads the ISW analysis.

For the US experts, this development has far-reaching consequences and provides important information about Putin’s further war goals. “The occupying government of the Kharkiv Oblast’s explicit use of Imperial Russian imagery and rhetoric clearly pointing to annexation, rather than imagery and rhetoric supporting the establishment of a ‘people’s republic,’ reinforces the ISW’s earlier assessment that the Kremlin broader territorial goals than conquering the Donetsk and Luhansk regions or even retaining southern Ukraine.”

At the beginning of the war, the Kremlin announced that it was pursuing three goals with what it called “the special operation on Ukraine.

Since the beginning of the war, however, Western experts have assumed that these goals could change and that Putin might want to occupy much more extensive parts of Ukraine. Now that the two regions of Luhansk and Donetsk have been captured by Russia after months of fighting, the Kremlin appears to be targeting the region to the north around Kharkiv as well. And while the two regions of Luhansk and Donetsk are so-called “people’s republics” for the regime in Moscow, which Putin believes should be largely independent, the Kharkiv region could face a different fate if Russia’s brutal war of aggression, which violates international law, is successful.