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Putin annexation of four Ukrainian regions decried as illegal land grab

Russian President Vladimir Putin held a formal ceremony in the Kremlin to sign “accession treaties” to annex four Ukrainian regions. The West called the annexations illegal while Ukrainian troops continued the fight to recapture the lost territories.

(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.

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Shortly after Putin made his speech, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a formal request for Ukraine to join NATO. In 2017, Ukraine changed its constitution to state that NATO membership is a national objective. Still, it remains highly unlikely that Ukraine will be admitted into NATO any time soon because it is at war with Russia.

In 2008, then-U.S. President George W. Bush ratcheted up tensions with Moscow by declaring at a NATO summit that one day Ukraine and Georgia would become alliance members. Moscow had warned against such a move for years, saying that NATO's enlargement was endangering its security.

Ukraine's potential membership in NATO – a position driven mostly by pro-Western anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalists – has been a source of conflict ever since Ukraine gained independence in 1991. NATO is now arming and training Ukrainian soldiers and providing military intelligence to Kyiv. Russia in turn openly says it is now at war with NATO.

The leaders of the four Ukrainian regions seized by Russia were present at the annexation ceremony at the Kremlin and signed so-called “accession treaties” with Putin. Large crowds gathered in Red Square to celebrate the annexation, which was defined by Russians as a correction of history. Putin called the annexation of Ukrainian territory as a restoration of Russia’s “historical unity.” Large parts of Ukraine were under the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union for about 300 years.  

Putin’s speech to a stone-faced audience of Russian elites, military brass and Kremlin officials was a vehement condemnation of the West contrasted by praise for the Soviet Union as a power that “reduced poverty and inequality” in the 20th century.   

“They don't accept our philosophers, our prosperity,” he said. “The West wants to destroy Russia.”

It was a speech woven with long-held Russian grievances, such as supposed broken promises made to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand east once Germany was unified and the unilateral scrapping of disarmament treaties by the United States.  

He accused the West of “lying” and “deceit” and selfishly deciding who has “a right to self-determination and who doesn’t,” a reference to the many military interventions the U.S. and its NATO allies have undertaken since the end of the Cold War. He blamed the West for causing millions of refugees and devastating countries with its wars.   

“Russia is a great power, a great civilization,” he said. “We are defending our independence.”

He blamed the West for an unacceptable “Russophobia” being spread around the world. “One reason for Russophobia is that we did not develop the way they wanted, do trade that was to their advantage,” he said. “The West has not succeeded in taking Russia.”

Describing Western values related to transgender rights as “Satanism,”  he vowed that Russia was leading the way to a “multi-polar world” where countries will develop how they want to.

To many in the West, allowing such a doctrine to replace a world order based on humanistic, Western liberal democratic ideals portends a future where autocratic governments, such as those overseen by Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, are allowed to carry on doing global trade and gathering military and economic strength even as they grow more repressive.

Upon taking office, Biden declared the fight of the future would be between autocracies and democracies.

“We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future and direction of our world,” Biden said in February 2021 during a virtual speech at the Munich Security Conference. The annual conference took place online because the coronavirus pandemic was raging.

“We're at an inflection point between those who argue that given all the challenges we face – from the fourth industrial revolution to the global pandemic – that autocracy is the best way forward, they argue,” he said. “I believe [with] every ounce of my being that democracy will and must prevail … We must demonstrate that democracy can still deliver for our people in this changed world.”

The White House has called China and Russia the adversaries of democracy and said the Kremlin wants to weaken the EU and NATO.

Putin said Friday, “Dear friends, today we are fighting for a fair way, for Russia first of all. We need to overturn this shameful Western hegemony.”   

He described the fight in Ukraine as “battles for our people, for the great historical Russia.”

Western officials have long worried that Russia might seek to reconquer lands that once fell under the rule of tsars and the Soviets which became independent following the collapse of the U.S.S.R. There are sizeable Russian populations in many countries in Russia’s periphery, such as Estonia, Latvia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Georgia and Ukraine.

With the pretext of defending Russian populations outside its border, Moscow has engaged in military interventions in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine. All three nations are seeking NATO protection.   

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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