Russia is set to annex nearly a fifth of Ukraine in flagrant violation of international law, turning the millions of people living there “forever” into Russian citizens, President Vladimir Putin said Friday.
Once the process is officially completed, Moscow will recognize four Ukrainian regions as Russian territory: Luhansk and Donetsk — home to two Russian-backed breakaway republics that have been fighting since 2014 — as well as Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, two areas in southern Russia. Ukraine occupied by Russian forces since shortly after the start of the invasion.
Putin’s annexation announcement, made in a formal speech Friday at the Kremlin’s opulent St. George’s Hall, follows so-called referenda in regions generally dismissed as “sham” by Ukraine and Western countries.
Putin, however, tried to argue that the referendums reflected the will of “millions” of people, despite real-world reports suggesting that the vote was essentially — and in some cases literally — at gunpoint. Western leaders slammed the polls, saying they in no way met internationally recognized standards of free and fair elections.
The annexation announcement was met with a similar protest. The United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union have vowed never to recognize Russian sovereignty over the regions.
Despite widespread condemnation, Russia appears determined to go ahead with its plans to fly its flag over some 100,000 square kilometers (38,600 square miles) of Ukrainian territory — the largest forced annexation of land in Europe since 1945.
In his speech, Putin framed the annexation as an attempt to rectify what he sees as a major historical mistake: Russia’s demise after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the continuation of Western efforts to keep the country weak.
He reiterated his baseless claim that genocide was being committed against Russian speakers — one of the false pretenses used by Russia to invade Ukraine in February.
The speech was generally a commitment by the Russian leader to continue pursuing his main foreign policy goal: to restore Russia as a major global power tasked with protecting the Russian-speaking world from the ongoing threat of western troops.
“We remember the terrible and hungry 1990s, but Russia survived and got stronger. And it has its place in the world,” Putin said. “But the West is still trying to make us weaker, to split us into parts.”
The annexations could lay the groundwork for a dangerous new phase in the Russian attack on Ukraine. Ukrainian forces have successfully expelled Russian troops from parts of Donetsk in recent weeks, thanks in part to advanced weapons sent by the US and other allies. Kiev now controls about 40% of Donetsk, although many towns and cities bear war scars that will take years to heal.
With Russia formally recognizing Donetsk as its own territory, the Kremlin is likely to push through to retake it with the help of some of the 300,000 Russian citizens to be called up as part of a “partial mobilization,” Putin announced last week.
“It will have to be liberated,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said shortly before the speech.
Putin said Friday that while he was willing to negotiate with Ukraine, the sovereignty of those four regions would not be on the table.
“I want the Kiev authorities and their real masters in the West to hear me. For everyone to remember. The people who live in Luhansk and Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhia become our citizens. Forever,” the Russian president said at the annexation ceremony.
Putin has previously vowed to defend Russian territory “by all means at our disposal,” including nuclear weapons. US officials have said they don’t believe Putin would resort to tactical nuclear weapons — a type of bomb designed for battlefield use that is less powerful than traditional “strategic” nuclear weapons — although they cannot rule out the possibility.
Analysts believe Putin hopes the annexations will help shift public opinion in Russia in favor of what the Kremlin euphemistically calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
The Russian leader enjoyed stratospheric approval ratings after Crimea was annexed after a similar so-called referendum in 2014, but it did so in a largely bloodless manner with the help of “little green men” – Russian special operations forces that poured over the border into the peninsula from the annexation .
This invasion of Ukraine has turned out to be a bloody, seemingly intractable conflict that has cost the Russian military countless lives. Putin’s announcement of a “partial mobilization” last week made many Russians who do not support the war fear they will be drawn into the conflict.
More than 200,000 people – many of them young men of fighting age – have fled Russia since the partial mobilization began. Several who spoke to CNN expressed fears that the government could impose a draft at a later date.
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Within Russia, the renewed war effort — and its apparent failed rollout — has been met with fury in some corners. Reports surfaced that men were wrongfully conscripted, which Putin appeared to acknowledge on Thursday when he demanded “mistakes” regarding the order be corrected.
Activist groups have said ethnic minorities in Russia are being disproportionately mobilized. Heated protests broke out in several regions with significant ethnic minorities, including the predominantly Muslim region of Dagestan.
Meanwhile, small demonstrations were reported in 38 Russian cities last week — including Moscow and St. Petersburg, according to the independent monitoring group OVD-Info. A spokeswoman for the organization told CNN that some of the protesters arrested by riot police are being drafted directly into the Russian army.