Russian President Vladimir Putin declared annexation of four partially occupied Ukraine regions at the signing ceremony in the Kremlin.
Ukraine, Western countries and the UN secretary general condemned the move, representing a major escalation in the conflict. war began with the invasion of Russia on 24 February.
At Friday’s ceremony, Putin said Russia has “four new regions”, calling people in Ukraine’s occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia regions “our citizens forever”.
“This is the will of millions of people,” he said in a speech to hundreds of dignitaries in the Kremlin’s St George’s Hall.
The signing ceremony comes three days after the completion of a “referendum” held by the Kremlin in four regions, which are occupied largely or partially by Russian or Russian-backed forces.
Moscow’s proxies in the occupied areas have stated as much as 99% in favor of joining Russia. Western and Kyiv governments have rejected hastily held votes as a violation of international law, arguing that they are coercive and completely non-representative.
Earlier, on Friday, the Kremlin warned that Ukrainian attacks on any annexed areas would be seen as acts of aggression against Russia itself. In his speech, Putin said that Russia will defend its new territory by all means at its disposal.
The exact details of Russia’s annexation are unclear, but it appears that Russia is claiming some 109,000 square kilometers (42,000 square miles) of Ukrainian territory, or about 18 percent, in addition to Crimea, which Russia annexed. in 2014.
If Russia can establish control over the entire area it claims, Putin will annex about 136,000 square kilometers (52,510 square miles) or more than 22% of Ukraine’s territory, whose borders Russia recognizes in a treaty after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
On Thursday, UN chief Antonio Guterres told reporters that “any decision to proceed with the annexation of the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia of Ukraine will have no legal validity and deserve condemnation”.
He called the takeover a “dangerous escalation”.
Moscow has taken a series of steps in what observers have called efforts to “Russianize” the annexed areas, a process most progressive in the occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where they have issued hundreds of thousands of Russian passports to people since then. 2019 and almost completely replace the Ukrainian hryvnia currency with the Russian ruble.
In the occupied areas of all four regions, access to Ukraine’s television and mobile phone networks has been cut off and only Russian channels and telecommunications providers are available.
Schools that previously taught the Ukrainian curriculum are being forced to adopt the new Russian curriculum.
Meanwhile, the pro-Russian separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have their own flags, which will soon be replaced by Russian flags, while billboards on the streets of Kherson and Zaporizhia praise the future of Russia. they are part of Russia.
In his speech, Putin called on Ukraine to stop its military action and return to the negotiating table.
The Ukrainian government has pledged to recapture all the lands occupied by Russia and says Moscow’s decision to annex the territories has destroyed all prospects of negotiations.
Putin went on to criticize the West’s support of Ukraine in the conflict as an attempt to turn Russia into a “colony” and a “crowd of slaves”.
“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West decided that the world would forever have to obey its orders,” Putin said on Friday, referring to the Soviet Union.
“The West expected that Russia would not be able to cope with such sanctions and collapse … but Russia has been reborn and strengthened.”
However, Patrick Bury, a senior lecturer in security at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, noted that the speech – which appeared to be “more geared towards a global audience” – did not contain any ultimatums. specific to Ukraine in terms of the region, nor does it contain any “mention of nuclear escalation”.
He told Al Jazeera that the omissions alleviate some concerns about a more direct threat from Russia.
“So the security implications now are: What does Ukraine do with these turrets, will they continue to attack, and what do I imagine they will do, in the short term?” he say. “And how did Russia react?”