Ukraine war: Russia illegally annexes four regions in east Ukraine

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Russian President Vladimir Putin signed treaties on Friday to illegally annex more occupied Ukrainian territory in a sharp escalation of his seven-month invasion. 

Putin said the four Ukrainian regions – Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia – are now “Russian forever”.

In a rhetoric-filled speech, Putin vowed to protect the newly annexed areas of Ukraine by “all available means,” a nuclear-backed threat at a Kremlin signing ceremony where he also railed furiously at the West, accusing them of seeking Russia’s destruction. 

While Putin urged Ukraine to sit down for peace talks he also insisted he won’t discuss handing back occupied regions. 

In response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said there’d be no negotiations with Putin.

“We are ready for a dialogue with Russia, but … with another president of Russia,” he said.

Friday afternoon’s ceremony took place in the Kremlin’s ornate St George’s Hall, where President Putin accused the West of fueling the hostilities as part of what he said is a plan to turn Russia into a “colony” and a “crowds of slaves.” The hardening of his position, in the conflict that that has killed and wounded tens of thousands of people, further cranked up tensions, already at levels unseen since the Cold War.

Later, in the Russian capital’s famous Red Square, Vladimir Putin addressed a crowd of people, many waving Russian flags. 

“Russia does not only open the door to our brothers and sisters but it also opens its heart to them. Welcome home,” Putin said, echoing the speech announcing the annexation of the occupied Ukrainian land. 

In a short address, Putin spoke with four occupation officials standing by his side, ending his words praising those fighting in Ukraine with a series of hurrahs.

“Victory will be ours,” he concluded, before the Russian national anthem was played. 

Read our Russia-Ukraine live blog from Friday to see how events unfolded throughout the day:

‘Sham referendums’ in eastern regions

Putin’s Kremlin ceremony came three days after the completion of Moscow-orchestrated “referendums” in occupied regions on joining Russia, which were dismissed by Kyiv and the West as a bare-faced land grab held at gunpoint and based on lies.

In his fiery speech at the ceremony, Putin insisted that Ukraine must treat the Kremlin-managed votes “with respect.”

After the signing ceremony of treaties to join Russia, Moscow-installed leaders of the occupied regions gathered around Putin and they all linked hands, joining chants of “Russia! Russia!” with the audience.

Putin, however, cut an angry figure as he accused the United States and its allies of seeking to destroy Russia. He said the West acted “as a parasite” and used its financial and technological strength “to rob the entire world.”

He portrayed Russia as being on a historical mission to reclaim its post-Soviet great power status and counter Western domination that he said is collapsing.

“History has called us to a battlefield to fight for our people, for the grand historic Russia, for future generations,” he said.

The separatist Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine have been backed by Moscow since declaring independence in 2014, weeks after the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. The southern Kherson region and part of neighboring Zaporizhzhia were captured by Russia soon after Putin sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Both houses of the Kremlin-controlled Russian parliament will meet next week to rubber-stamp the treaties for the regions to join Russia, sending them to Putin for his approval.

Putin and his lieutenants have bluntly warned Ukraine against pressing an offensive to reclaim the regions, saying Russia would view it as an act of aggression – threats that Moscow can back up with the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear warheads.

Annexation comes after battlefield defeats

The illegal annexation was an attempt by Putin to avoid more defeats on the battlefields that could threaten his 22-year rule. By formalizing Russia’s gains, at least on paper, Putin seemingly hopes to scare Ukraine and its Western backers with the prospect of an increasingly escalatory conflict unless they back down — which they show no signs of doing.

Russia controls most of the Luhansk and Kherson regions, about 60% of the Donetsk region and a large chunk of the Zaporizhzhia region where it took control of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.

But the Kremlin is on the verge of another stinging battlefield loss, with reports of the imminent Ukrainian encirclement of the eastern city of Lyman. Retaking it could open the path for Ukraine to push deep into Luhansk, one of the regions Russia is absorbing.

Analysts have warned that Putin was likely to dip more heavily into his dwindling stocks of precision weapons and step up attacks as part of a strategy to escalate the war and shatter Western support.