By Joshua Berlinger, Anna Chernova and Tim Lister, CNN
President Vladimir Putin announced Russia would seize of nearly a fifth of Ukraine on Friday, declaring that the millions of people living there would 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 at the Kremlin’s opulent St. George’s Hall on Friday, follows so-called referendums in the regions that were universally dismissed as “shams” by Ukraine and Western nations.
Putin, however, attempted to claim that the referendums reflected the will of “millions” of people, despite reports from the ground suggesting that voting took place essentially — and in some cases, literally — at gunpoint. Western leaders have slammed the polls, saying that they fail to meet internationally recognized standards of free and fair elections.
The annexation announcement was met with a similar outcry. Members of the G7 — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — and the European Union have vowed to never recognize Russian sovereignty over the regions and to impose sanctions on Russia. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington would place visa restrictions on 910 individuals 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.”
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky called the move a “farce” in a pre-recorded video statement released shortly after Putin’s speech and vowed 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’s unclear how long such a process would take. New NATO members must meet a series of criteria for membership and be unanimously approved by current alliance members.
“We see who threatens us,” Zelensky said. “It is in Ukraine that the fate of democracy in the confrontation with tyranny is being decided.
Despite the widespread condemnation, Russia appears committed to forging ahead with its plans to fly its flag over some 100,000 square kilometers (38,600 square miles) of Ukrainian territory — the largest forcible 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 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and continued Western efforts to keep the country weak.
He repeated his unfounded allegation that genocide was being committed against Russian speakers — one of the false pretenses Russia used to invade Ukraine in February.
The address, on the whole, was a commitment by the Russian leader to continue pursuing his major foreign policy aim: restoring Russia as a major global power charged with protecting the Russian speaking world from the continued threat posed by Western forces.
“We remember the horrible and hungry 1990s, but Russia has survived and became stronger. And it has its place in the world,” Putin said. “But the West is still trying to make us weaker, to split us into parts.”
A new phase of the conflict
The 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 the advanced weaponry sent by the US and other allies. Kyiv now controls about 40% of Donetsk, though many towns and cities bear scars of war that will take years to heal.
Now that Russia formally recognizes Donetsk as its own territory, the Kremlin is likely to push forward to recapture it using some of the 300,000 Russian citizens who will be conscripted as part of a “partial mobilization” Putin announced last week.
“It will have to be liberated,” said Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, shortly before the speech.
Putin said 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 real masters in the West to hear me. For everyone to remember. People living 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 the means at our disposal,” including nuclear weapons. US officials have said that they don’t believe Putin would 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 discount the possibility.
“We are looking very carefully to see if Russia is actually doing anything that suggests that they are contemplating the use of nuclear weapons. To date, we’ve not seen them take these actions,” US Secretary of State Blinken said Friday.
Analysts believe that Putin hopes the annexations will help shift public opinion in Russia in favor of what the Kremlin euphemistically calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
The Russian leader enjoyed stratospheric approval ratings after Crimea was annexed after a similar so-called referendum in 2014, but that was done in a largely bloodless manner using “little green men” — Russian special operations troops who poured over the border into the peninsula ahead of the annexation.
This invasion of Ukraine has proven to be a bloody, 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 who spoke with CNN voiced fears that the government could impose a draft at a later date.
Inside Russia, the renewed war effort — and its apparent botched rollout — has been met in some corners with anger. Reports emerged of men being improperly conscripted, which Putin appeared to acknowledge on Thursday when he demanded that “mistakes” related to the order be rectified.
Activist groups have said ethnic minorities in Russia are being disproportionately mobilized. Heated protests broke out in several regions with significant ethnic minority populations, including the predominately Muslim region of Dagestan.
Meanwhile, small demonstrations were reported last week in 38 Russian cities — including Moscow and St. Petersburg, according to independent monitoring group OVD-Info. A spokeswoman for the organization told CNN some of the protesters arrested by riot police were being drafted directly into Russia’s military.
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CNN’s Victoria Butenko, Mick Krever, Betsy Klein, Phil Mattingly, Nathan Hodge, Vasco Cotovio, Melissa Bell, Nick Paton Walsh and Natalie Gallón contributed to this report.