UPDATED: Putin says Russia has ‘four new regions’ as he announces annexation of Ukrainian territory

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Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday presided over a ceremony to annex four Ukrainian regions partly occupied by his forces, escalating his seven-month war and taking it into an unpredictable new phase.

“This is the will of millions of people,” he said in a speech before hundreds of dignitaries in the St George’s Hall of the Kremlin.

The ceremony took place three days after the completion of hastily staged referendums in which Moscow’s proxies in the occupied regions claimed majorities of up to 99% in favour of joining Russia.

Ukraine and Western governments described those votes as bogus, illegitimate and conducted at gunpoint.

In a speech repeatedly interrupted by applause, Putin declared that Russia had four new regions.

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 Russia’s decision to annex the territories had destroyed any prospect of talks.

Putin on Friday denied seeking to revive the Soviet Union, moments after announcing Moscow would annex four Ukrainian provinces following “referendums” decried in Kyiv and the West as a sham.

In a speech from the Kremlin to hundreds of Russia’s top politicians, Putin said Russia would defend its new territory with all the means at its disposal, remarks that could signal an escalation in the conflict with Ukraine.

Putin said the United States had created a “precedent” by using nuclear weapons against Japan at the end of World War Two, in a speech filled with hostility towards the West delivered from the Kremlin on Friday.

Fears of nuclear war have grown since Putin said last week he was “not bluffing” when he said Russia was prepared to use nuclear weapons to defend its territory.

Putin on Friday directly accused “Anglo-Saxon” powers of blowing up the Nord Stream pipelines.

“The sanctions were not enough for the Anglo-Saxons: they moved onto sabotage,” Putin said. “It is hard to believe but it is a fact that they organised the blasts on the Nord Stream international gas pipeline.”

He

vowed to defend Russia’s “homeland and values” in a defiant speech from the Kremlin in which he announced Russia was annexing four regions from Ukraine and said the West feared Russian culture.

Presenting a long list of grievances against the West, Putin accused the United States and its allies of waging a “hybrid war” against Russia and the separatist administrations it backed in eastern Ukraine.

He said the West had broken its promises to Russia and had no moral right to talk about democracy, and that the countries of the West were acting as the imperialist states that they had “always been”.

“Referendums have taken place … their results are well-known.”
“People have made their choice … This is an inalienable right, which is enshrined in Article 1 of the U.N. Charter.”
“People living in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson region and Zaporizhzhia region are becoming our compatriots forever.”
“We call on the Kyiv regime to immediately cease hostilities and return to the negotiation table.”
“We will defend our land with all our strength and all our means”.
“After the collapse of the USSR, the West decided that the world would forever have to put up with its dictates … the West expected that Russia would not be able to cope with such dictates and fall apart … but Russia has been reborn and strengthened.”
“The West continues to look for new chances to weaken and destroy Russia.”

The head of Russia’s lower chamber of parliament said earlier on Friday that President Vladimir Putin had notified the house about plans to admit four regions of Ukraine into Russia – a technical step towards Russia’s annexation of the territories.

State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, a key Putin ally, said on the Duma’s official Telegram channel that Putin had informed the parliament of official requests by the regions.

Russia had held what it called referendums in four partially-occupied areas of Ukraine – Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, and said they had produced overwhelming majorities in favour of joining Russia.

Western governments and Kyiv said the votes had been carried out under the coercion of occupation, were unrepresentative and breached international law.

Putin was due to preside over a signing ceremony with the Russian-installed heads of the four regions in the Kremlin later on Friday.

Kremlin: attack on annexed territory will be an attack on Russia

The Kremlin said on Friday it would consider attacks against any part of the regions of Ukraine that it is about to annex as acts of aggression against Russia itself.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also told reporters Russia would “de jure” incorporate parts of Ukraine which are not under the control of Russian forces into Russia itself as part of its move to annex four regions of Ukraine.

Russia is moving to annex the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine after holding what it called referendums in occupied areas of Ukraine. Western governments and Kyiv said the votes breached international law and were coercive and non-representative.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was set to host a Kremlin ceremony on Friday annexing four regions of Ukraine, while his Ukrainian counterpart said Putin would have to be stopped for Russia to avoid the most damaging consequences of the war.

There was a warning too from U.N. chief Antonio Guterres, who said the planned annexations were a “dangerous escalation” and would jeopardise prospects for peace.

Putin has doubled down on the invasion he ordered in February despite suffering a major reversal on the battlefield this month and discontent in Russia over a widely criticised “partial mobilisation” of thousands more men to fight in Ukraine. Russia calls the war in Ukraine a “special operation.”

“The cost of one person in Russia wanting to continue this war is that Russian society will be left without a normal economy, a worthwhile life, or any respect for humanitarian values,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a Thursday evening address.

“It can still be stopped. But to stop it we have to stop that person in Russia who wants war more than life. Your lives, citizens of Russia,” said Zelenskiy, who earlier spoke of Ukraine delivering a “very harsh” reaction to Russian recognition of the results of what it has called referendums.

Russia’s annexation of eastern and southern provinces comes after what Ukraine and Western countries said were sham votes staged at gunpoint in Russian-occupied areas of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. The territory Russia controls amounts to more than 90,000 square km, or about 15% of Ukraine’s total area – equal to the size of Hungary or Portugal.

Putin took the intermediary step of signing decrees on Thursday paving the way for occupied regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia to be formally annexed into Russia. The decrees were made public by the Kremlin.

Zelenskiy promised a strong response to the annexations and summoned his defence and security chiefs for an emergency meeting on Friday where “fundamental decisions” will be taken, an official said.

CEREMONY

On the eve of the ceremony in the Georgievsky Hall of the Great Kremlin Palace and a concert in Red Square, Putin said that “all mistakes” made in a call-up announced last week should be corrected, his first public acknowledgment that it had not gone smoothly.

Thousands of men have fled from Russia to avoid a draft that was billed as enlisting those with military experience and required specialities but has often appeared oblivious to individuals’ service record, health, student status or even age.

Russia says the referendums, ostensibly asking people in the four regions whether they wanted to be part of Russia, were genuine and showed public support.

At Friday’s event, Putin will give a speech, meet leaders of the self-styled Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic as well as the Russian-installed leaders of the parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia that Russian forces occupy.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not say whether Putin would attend the Red Square concert, as he did a similar event in 2014 after Russia proclaimed it had annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region.

A stage has been set up in the Moscow square with giant video screens and billboards proclaiming the four areas part of Russia.

“Any decision to proceed with the annexation … would have no legal value and deserves to be condemned,” U.N. Secretary General Guterres told reporters.

U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would never recognise Russia’s claims on Ukraine’s territory, denouncing the referendums.

“The results were manufactured in Moscow,” Biden said at a conference of Pacific Island leaders on Thursday.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan pressed Putin in a call to take steps to reduce tensions in Ukraine.

NUCLEAR UMBRELLA

Russian government officials have said that the four regions will fall under Moscow’s nuclear umbrella once they have been formally incorporated into Russia. Putin has said he could use nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory if necessary.

The United States and the European Union are set to impose additional sanctions on Russia over the annexation, and even some of Russia’s close traditional allies, such as Serbia and Kazakhstan, say they will not recognise the move.

What Russia is billing as a celebration comes after it has faced its worst setbacks of the seven-month-old war, with its forces routed in Ukraine’s northeast Kharkiv region.

Heavy fighting continues in the four disputed regions, particularly Donetsk and Luhansk.

Some military experts say Kyiv is poised to deliver another major defeat, gradually encircling the town of Lyman, Russia’s main remaining bastion in the northern part of Donetsk province. Its capture would open the way into the Luhansk region.

“If Lyman falls, our forces can … cut the main supply corridor to Russian troops in Sivierodonetsk and Lysychansk (in Luhansk),” Ukraine’s military General Staff said. The two towns were taken by Russian troops in June and July.

In the past 24 hours, Ukraine’s military said it had killed 43 Russian servicemen and destroyed two Russian Su-25 aircraft, four tanks, four large-calibre howitzers, two self-propelled cannons and one reconnaissance drone.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; writing by Grant McCool; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Gerry Doyle)

A stage featuring a sign reading ‘Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporozhye, Kherson Russia’ during preparations for a celebration in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral in downtown of Moscow, Russia. EPA-EFE/SERGEI ILNITSKY

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