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Putin announces Russian annexation of four Ukrainian regions

Russian President Vladimir Putin proclaimed the annexation of four partially occupied Ukrainian regions at a signing ceremony in the Kremlin.

Ukraine, Western countries and the United Nations secretary-general have denounced the move, which represents a major escalation in the war that began with Russia’s invasion on February 24.

At Friday’s ceremony, Putin said Russia has “four new regions,” calling residents of Ukraine’s occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia regions “our citizens forever.”

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

INTERACTIVE Which regions of Ukraine is Russia annexing?

The signing ceremony comes three days after the completion of Kremlin-orchestrated “referendums” in the four regions, which are largely or partly occupied by Russian or Russian-backed forces.

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Moscow’s representatives in the occupied regions have claimed majorities of up to 99 percent in favor of joining Russia. Western and Kyiv governments have dismissed the hastily organized polls as violating international law, accusing them of being coercive and unrepresentative.

Earlier on Friday, the Kremlin warned that Ukraine’s attacks on any of the annexed regions would be considered aggression against Russia itself. In his speech, Putin said that Russia will defend its new territory with all means at its disposal.

The exact details of Russia’s annexation remain unclear, but it appears that Russia claims some 109,000 square kilometers (42,000 square miles) of Ukrainian territory, or about 18 percent, plus Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.

If Russia could establish control over the entire area it claims, Putin would have annexed some 136,000 square kilometers (52,510 square miles) or more than 22 percent of Ukraine, whose borders Russia recognized in a treaty after the fall of the Soviet Union.

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On Thursday, UN chief Antonio Guterres told reporters that “any decision to proceed with the annexation of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia regions of Ukraine would have no legal value and deserve to be condemned.”

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He called the annexation a “dangerous escalation”.

Moscow has already taken a number of steps in what observers call efforts to “Russify” the annexed regions, a process that is most advanced in the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, where it has handed out hundreds of thousands of Russian passports to residents. since then. 2019 and almost completely replaced the Ukrainian hryvnia currency with the Russian ruble.

In the occupied areas of the four regions, access to Ukraine’s television and mobile phone networks has been cut off and only Russian channels and telecom providers are available.

Schools that previously taught the Ukrainian curriculum are forced to adopt a new Russian one.

Meanwhile, the pro-Russian breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lugansk have their own flags, soon to be replaced by Russia’s, while billboards on the streets of Kherson and Zaporizhia proclaim their future as part of Russia.

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In the speech, Putin urged Ukraine to cease military action and return to the negotiating table.

The Ukrainian government has pledged to take back all land seized by Russia and said Moscow’s decision to annex the territories had destroyed any chance of talks.

Putin further denounced the West’s backing of Ukraine in the conflict as an attempt to turn Russia into a “colony” and “crowds of slaves.”

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“After the collapse of the USSR, the West decided that the world would have to endure its dictates forever,” Putin said Friday, referring to the Soviet Union.

“The West expected that Russia would not be able to cope with such dictates and would fall apart… but Russia has been reborn and strengthened.”

Still, Patrick Bury, Senior Lecturer in Security at the University of Bath in the UK, noted that the speech, which seemed “more aimed at a global audience”, did not contain any specific ultimatums for Ukraine in terms of the region, nor Did it contain any “mention of nuclear escalation”?

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The omissions allay some concerns of a more immediate threat from Russia, he told Al Jazeera.

“So the security implications now are: what does Ukraine do with these oblasts, do they continue to attack, and I imagine they will, in the short term?” he said. “And how does Russia respond?”

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