Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday declared the largest annexation of territory in post-war Europe, claiming nuclear-backed but shaky control over parts of Ukraine even as his forces were on the brink of another major battlefield setback.
“This is the will of millions of people,” Putin said in a speech at a grand Kremlin ceremony to welcome the four areas that violate international law. It marked another political escalation in the seven-month war following Moscow’s call on military reservists and renewed threats that it might resort to the use of weapons of mass destruction.
The United States, Ukraine and others have condemned this as an illegal land grab and vow to retaliate with sanctions, while Kiev has vowed to continue fighting to get its occupied land back. The annexation was also overshadowed by a deadly attack on a civilian convoy in the south of the country.
Russia says it will only comply with a democratic decision by people living in the regions of eastern and southern Ukraine – Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia – a claim few in the West take seriously. Instead, the move is seen by Putin as a broader escalation after a series of punishing defeats on the battlefield by a lightning-fast counter-offensive by Kiev.
In addition to announcing the annexation, Putin has partially mobilized his military — sparking domestic backlash and an exodus of Russians fleeing conscription — and stepped up his nuclear threats against Ukraine and the West.
As more territory slips from the Russian leader’s grasp, an attempt to annex these four regions is seen by many as a desperate attempt to regain control, with the embattled Russian leader even suggesting that he would use his nuclear arsenal to to defend the territory.
Putin delivered a speech to hundreds of officials and other dignitaries, some in suits, some in military uniform, during a lavish ceremony beneath the gigantic gold chandeliers of Georgievsky Hall, in the Grand Kremlin palace.
The ascension ceremony began a little after 3 p.m. local time (8 p.m. ET), with the crowd holding a minute’s silence as Putin greeted Russian “heroes” who died in the war, which he calls a “special military operation.” ”
A stage has been set up with gigantic video screens and billboards announcing the four regions of Russia. Moscow celebrates its claim to a whopping 15% of Ukraine, the continent’s largest country, with a pop concert in the city’s iconic Red Square.
But to underscore the disconnect between Friday’s ceremonies and the ongoing chaos and bloodshed of the war, hours before a rocket attack on a convoy of cars traveling from Ukrainian-occupied land in Zaporizhzhya to Russian-occupied territories killed at least 23 people. life, local officials said.
It was also clear that annexation does not mean control.
According to the Institute for the Study of War, a US military think tank and other observers, thousands of Russian troops in the strategic city of Lyman in the eastern region of Donetsk were about to be surrounded by Ukraine.
Rob Lee, a respected military analyst describing the conflict, tweeted Thursday that the Lyman “pocket” could collapse at any time, which “would overshadow the annexation announcement”.
It was unclear whether Putin was claiming all four regions, or just those parts firmly controlled by his military.