President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would seize nearly a fifth of Ukraine on Friday, declaring that the millions of people living there will be Russian citizens “forever.”
Under the annexation process, which is illegal under international law, Moscow will recognize four Ukrainian regions as Russian territory: Luhansk and Donetsk, home to two Russian-backed breakaway republics where fighting has been ongoing since 2014, as well as Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. , two areas in southern Ukraine that have been occupied by Russian forces since shortly after the invasion began.
Putin’s announcement, made in a formal speech in the Kremlin’s opulent St. George’s Hall on Friday, it follows so-called referendums in regions that Ukraine and Western nations universally dismissed as “shams.”
However, Putin attempted to claim that the referendums reflected the will of “millions” of people, despite reports on the ground suggesting that the vote essentially took place, and in some cases literally – at gunpoint. Western leaders have criticized the polls, saying they fall short of internationally recognized standards for free and fair elections.
The annexation announcement was met with a similar outcry. The members of the G7 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States) and the European Union have promised never to recognize Russian sovereignty over the regions and to impose sanctions on Russia. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington would impose visa restrictions on 910 people in Russia and Belarus, while a Biden administration official said the White House would impose “swift and severe costs” on Russia. The British government said it would implement services sanctions and an export ban that target “Russian economic vulnerabilities”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the move a “farce” in a pre-recorded video statement released shortly after Putin’s speech, vowing that “the entire territory of our country will be liberated.” Zelensky also said his country would apply for NATO membership “under an accelerated procedure,” but it was unclear how long that process would take. The new members of NATO must meet a set of criteria to become a member and be approved unanimously by the current members of the alliance.
“We see who threatens us,” Zelensky said. “It is in Ukraine that the fate of democracy is decided in the confrontation with tyranny.
Despite widespread condemnation, Russia appears determined to go ahead with 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 fix what he sees as a great historical mistake: Russia’s demise after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the West’s continued efforts to keep the country weak.
He repeated his baseless accusation that genocide was being committed against Russian speakers, one of the false pretexts Russia used to invade Ukraine in February.
The speech, in general, was a commitment on the part of the Russian leader to continue pursuing its main foreign policy objective: Restore Russia as a major world power tasked with protecting the Russian-speaking world from the continuing threat posed by Western forces.
“We remember the horrible and hungry 1990s, but Russia has survived and has become stronger. And it has its place in the world,” Putin said. “But the West is still trying to weaken us, to divide us into parts.”
annexations could lay the groundwork for a dangerous new phase in Russia’s assault on Ukraine. Ukrainian forces have, in recent weeks, successfully expelled Russian forces from parts of Donetsk thanks in part to advanced weaponry shipped by the US and other allies. Kyiv now controls about 40% of Donetsk, though many towns and cities bear war scars that will take years to heal.
Now that Russia formally recognizes Donetsk as its own territory, the Kremlin is likely to move on to take it back using some of the 300,000 Russian citizens who will be recruited as part of a “partial mobilization.” Putin announced last week.
“He will have to be released,” said Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, shortly before the speech.
Putin said on 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 Kyiv authorities and their true masters in the West to listen to me. For everyone to remember. People who live in Luhansk and Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are becoming our citizens. Forever,” the Russian president said during the annexation ceremony.
Putin has previously vowed to defend Russian territory “with all means at our disposal,” including nuclear weapons. US officials have said they do not believe Putin will resort to tactical nuclear weapons, a type of bomb designed for use on the battlefield that is less powerful than traditional “strategic” nuclear weapons, though they cannot rule out the possibility.
“We are watching very carefully to see if Russia is really doing anything that suggests that it is contemplating the use of nuclear weapons. To date, we have not seen them take these actions,” US Secretary of State Blinken said on Friday.
Analysts believe Putin hopes the annexations will help shift public opinion in Russia in favor of what the Kremlin euphemistically calls his “special military operation” in Ukraine.
The Russian leader enjoyed stratospheric approval ratings after Crimea was annexed following a similar so-called referendum in 2014, but that was done. in a largely bloodless way using “little green men” – Russian special operations troops who crossed the border into the peninsula before annexation.
This invasion of Ukraine has proven to be a bloody and seemingly intractable conflict that has cost the Russian military countless lives. Putin’s announcement of a “partial mobilization” last week led many Russians who do not support the war to fear that 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 of those who spoke to CNN expressed fear that the government could impose a draft at a later date.
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Inside Russia, the renewed war effort, and its apparent failed launch, has been met with anger in some corners. Reports arose from men who were improperly recruited, that Putin seemed to recognize Thursday when he demanded that “mistakes” related to the order be rectified.
activist groups has said ethnic minorities in Russia are being disproportionately mobilized. Heated protests erupted in several regions with significant ethnic minority populations, including the predominantly Muslim region of Dagestan.
Meanwhile, small demonstrations were reported last week in 38 Russian cities, 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 were being directly recruited by the Russian military.