(CN) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday lashed out at the West as he formally annexed four Ukrainian regions that his troops are struggling to hold onto against advances from Kyiv's forces.
In a signing ceremony inside the majestic St. George Hall in the Kremlin, Putin delivered an hour-long speech declaring that the four regions were returning to their proper place inside a “great Russia.”
He characterized the annexations as part of Russia's larger mission to create what he called a fairer “multi-polar” world order that breaks the West's “uni-polar” dominance. His speech seemed more directed toward people living in developing countries as he accused the West of a history of colonialism, genocide, slavery and theft.
His annexation speech was a major escalation in a war over Ukraine that has entered its eighth month and threatens to intensify even further as neither Russia nor Ukraine has buckled militarily or politically.
Indeed, Putin ordered the mobilization of 300,000 reservists more than a week ago to shore up his besieged troops in Ukraine. Russia has about 200,000 troops occupying Ukraine, but that is fewer than Ukraine has. Kyiv ordered a mass mobilization following Putin’s invasion and it likely has more than 260,000 soldiers fighting.
American, European and United Nations officials denounced the annexations of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia as an illegal land grab.
On Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden said the U.S. will never recognize the annexations. European Union leaders said the same on Friday in a statement condemning Putin's actions as illegal and vowed to stand firmly by Ukraine as it defends itself and fights to recapture all the territory Russian troops have occupied.
“The illegal annexation proclaimed by Putin won’t change anything,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a statement. “All territories illegally occupied by Russian invaders are Ukrainian land and will always be part of this sovereign nation.”
The territory annexed by Russia amounts to about 15% of Ukraine, a large chunk of the country's eastern and southern flanks plus the Crimean Peninsula.
Even as Putin spoke in Moscow, the war continued to rage in the four regions, which are not completely under Russian control. Moscow has vowed to consider any attacks on the four regions as attacks on Russia itself, but in his speech Putin did not issue any direct threats of that kind.
On Friday, Ukrainian forces claimed they were on the verge of a significant tactical success as they reported encircling Russian forces in a small city in Donetsk called Lyman. But Ukrainian advances have slowed in the past two weeks following a major counteroffensive that saw Russian troops retreat from the Kharkiv region.
Fighting over Donetsk and the neighboring region of Luhansk has been fierce ever since Putin launched the invasion more than eight months ago on Feb. 24. Prior to the invasion, Luhansk and Donetsk fighters, backed by Russian forces, and Ukraine's army and paramilitary groups fought for eight years in what was called a “frozen war.”
The inability to resolve that conflict, which some scholars see as a civil war between pro-Western and pro-Russian factions in Ukraine, led to the conflict escalating into Europe's worst war since the end of World War II.
The war's horrific toll on civilians was reinforced once again on Friday when a rocket hit cars and people waiting at a checkpoint between Russian-occupied and Ukrainian parts of Zaporizhzhia region. Reports said at least 25 people were killed and at least 50 were wounded. Both sides accused each other of striking the civilians.
Overnight, Russia launched a number of rockets against Ukrainian targets and claimed it killed 80 foreign fighters in Donetsk. Ukraine's military also has said it has inflicted heavy losses on Russian forces in recent days.