(Bloomberg) — Vladimir Putin vowed his annexation of four occupied regions in Ukraine is irreversible, as the Russian president formalized Europe’s biggest land grab since World War II, accusing the West of trying to subjugate his country.
“They will become our citizens forever,” he told officials in a Kremlin ceremony Friday before he and pro-Moscow leaders signed annexation documents. He demanded Ukraine stop fighting and begin talks, but refused to negotiate about the lands he’s absorbing.
The United Nations and many countries have denounced the annexation as illegal even as Putin insisted it reflects popular will and the right to national self-determination. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Thursday Russia would “annex itself to the catastrophe that it has brought to the occupied territory of our country.”
Ukraine has said it will only consider talks once Russian troops are driven back at least to their positions on the eve of the Feb. 24 invasion. Denouncing the annexation, the US and the European Union said they would impose new sanctions on Russia in response.
With his troops losing ground to a Ukrainian counteroffensive, Putin has been struggling to revive his seven-month-old invasion. He’s ordered the mobilization of 300,000 reservists to shore up his battered army, triggering an exodus of Russians trying to avoid being sent to the front.
An opinion poll published Thursday showed that an increasing number of Russians are concerned the war is going badly and most are alarmed at the decision to call up reservists.
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Even so, Putin has brandished the threat of using nuclear weapons to protect Russia’s sovereignty over the newly acquired territories, drawing warnings of harsh retaliation from the US and its allies.
In his speech Friday, Putin said, “We will use all means available to us to defend our lands,” but didn’t mention nuclear weapons specifically.
Putin devoted much of the 37-minute address to reiterating his denunciations of the US and its allies for allegedly trying to turn Russia into a “colony. ” Lashing out at what he described as the “pure satanism” of Western liberal values, he said Russia has its own views on the issues of gender and family.
The signing ceremony ended with a smiling Putin holding hands with the four regions’ Kremlin-installed chiefs as he joined in chants of “Russia” in the hall.
Before the address, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the talk of nuclear escalation “irresponsible” and declined to say whether attacks on the annexed territories may meet the standard for using the weapons set out in Russia’s military doctrine.
If the whole territories of the four regions are included, Putin is laying claim to about 15% of Ukraine’s land area, making the move the largest forced annexation in Europe since World War II.
Russian officials are moving quickly to try to formalize their grip on the occupied areas, promising to issue passports and to appoint senators representing the regions in the upper house of parliament.
Moscow has also stepped up threats to European energy supplies in an effort to sap support there for Ukraine. State gas giant Gazprom warned it may shut off the last pipeline carrying its gas to clients in western Europe, while leaks discovered in the Nord Stream links under the Baltic Sea have raised suspicions of sabotage and fears of attacks on other infrastructure.
Putin blamed “Anglo-Saxons” for sabotage of the pipelines.
A Russian missile strike killed at least 25 civilians near Zaporizhzhia early Friday, Ukrainian officials said. The city is one that Russia has included in the territory it claims to annex, although its forces have never reached it. The victims had been lining up in a convoy to travel toward the Russian-occupied zone to evacuate relatives, Ukraine said.
Kyiv’s allies in the US and Europe have vowed to continue billions of dollars in financial and military aid to support Ukraine’s drive to oust Russian forces. Ukrainian troops closed in on Lyman on Friday, a key regional town in the Donetsk region, with some analysts suggesting a large number of Moscow’s forces may be surrounded in the area.
(Updates with details, more Putin quotes)
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