Russia’s President Vladimir Putin moved on Friday (30 September) to formally announce the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions by Moscow, in what is Europe’s biggest land grab since Hitler.
Moscow’s annexation of the Russian-occupied areas of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia follows what the international community denounces as sham referendums staged with military escorts and reports of voters held at gunpoint.
Moscow’s proxies in the occupied regions claimed majorities of up to 99% in favour of joining Russia.
Putin signed the decrees recognising the two newly occupied Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia as independent on Thursday (29 September), and they were published online by the Kremlin on Friday.
In February, the Kremlin signed similar decrees for the region of Luhansk and Donetsk.
Speaking at a ceremony before hundreds of dignitaries in the Kremlin, Putin claimed “this is the will of millions of people.”
“I want the Kyiv government and their real bosses in the west to hear me (…) residents of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson are becoming our citizens forever,” he said.
The staged signing ceremony in the Kremlin was accompanied by a stage set up in Moscow’s Red Square, with billboards proclaiming the four regions as part of Russia and a concert planned for the evening.
Yevgeny Balitsky, the head of the Russian-backed administration in occupied parts of Zaporizhzhia shared an image of himself alongside Vladimir Saldo, his counterpart in Kherson, Denis Pushilin, from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, and Leonid Pasechnik from the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic.
It was not immediately clear how Moscow imagines the administrative process to unfold.
The exact details of Russia’s annexation are unclear, but it appears that Russia is laying claim to about 109,000 square kilometres of Ukrainian territory, or about 18%, in addition to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
If Russia establishes control over the whole area it claims but currently doesn’t fully control, Putin would have annexed around 136,000 square kilometres or more than 22% of Ukraine, whose borders Russia recognised in a treaty after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Putin has long claimed that Ukraine is targeting Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, and repeatedly made the unfounded accusation that Ukraine has carried out genocide in the east of the country.
In his speech, he urged Ukraine to cease military action and return to the negotiating table.
Kyiv has vowed to recapture all the lands seized by Russia and said that Moscow’s decision to annex the territories has destroyed any prospect of talks.
The step is another stage of escalation of Russia’s seven-month war in Ukraine and takes it into a new, unpredictable phase.
The Kremlin also announced on Friday that attacks against any parts of the annexed areas of Ukraine would be considered aggression against Russia itself, adding that Moscow would fight to take the whole of the eastern Donbas region.
Putin echoed previous claims that the West has been seeking to weaken Russia and bring it to its knees ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, recalling the use of nuclear weapons by the United States against Japan at the end of World War Two.
In a joint statement, all EU member states condemned Putin’s annexation step saying they “will never recognise this illegal annexation” and vowed to “strengthen our restrictive measures countering Russia’s illegal actions”.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen reacted to the ceremony at the Kremlin on Twitter, stating that “the illegal annexation proclaimed by Putin won’t change anything.”
“All territories illegally occupied by Russian invaders are Ukrainian land and will always be a part of this sovereign nation,” she said.
EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell called the announced annexation of Ukrainian territories a “major violation of international law and the UN Charter”.
“No sham referendum can justify it,” he tweeted, adding that EU support for Ukraine would remain unwavering.
The EU proposed an eighth package of sanctions on Russia on Thursday (29 September) in response to the fake referendums, likely to be agreed by the end of the week, while the US said it will announce more sanctions “in the coming days.”
The UN Security Council is set to vote on condemning Russia’s “illegal so-called referenda” in Ukraine on Friday, but Moscow is expected to veto the resolution.