President Vladimir Putin on Friday formally annexed Donetsk, Kherson, Lugansk and Zaporizhzhia, around 15 percent of Ukrainian territory, after referendums on joining Russia in areas controlled by Russian forces or Russian-backed separatists. The referendums come after Russia suffered one of the biggest setbacks of the war when Ukrainian forces started a counteroffensive in September.
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“I want to say this to the Kyiv regime and its masters in the West: People living in Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are becoming our citizens forever," Putin said in a televised address. “We call on the Kyiv regime to immediately stop fighting and stop all hostilities… and return to the negotiating table," the Russian leader added.
HOW IT HELPS RUSSIA?
Russia organized polls in occupied areas of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in Ukraine’s east and southeast amid the backdrop of the ongoing fighting.
Russian-installed officials in the four occupied regions of Ukraine reported huge majorities on Tuesday in favour of becoming part of Russia after five days of voting in so-called referendums that Kyiv and the West denounced as a sham.
The head of the upper house of the Russian parliament said the chamber might consider the incorporation of the four regions into Russia on October 4.
Ukraine urged the EU to impose new punitive sanctions in response to votes it said were often carried out at gunpoint.
Kremlin said that attacks against any part of the annexed territory would be considered aggression against Russia itself, thereby increasing the risk of direct military confrontation between itself and NATO.
COULD THE WEST STOP PUTIN?
Neither the West nor Ukraine could stop Putin claiming the regions, though the United States and its allies say they want Ukraine to defeat Russia on the battlefield - and will help it do so by supplying weapons, but not NATO troops.
The United States announced “severe" new sanctions against Russian officials and the country’s defense industry. “The United States is imposing swift and severe costs on Russia," the White House said in a statement.
After imposing severe sanctions on Russia, though, there is not a great deal of economic punishment left to inflict unless the United States could get China and India to agree to some sort of cap on the price of Russian energy.
The West could send more advanced weapons to Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that he would not negotiate with Russia as long as President Vladimir Putin is in power. “Ukraine will not hold any negotiations with Russia as long as Putin is the president of the Russian Federation. We will negotiate with the new president," Zelensky said.
Zelenskiy said Ukraine had received sophisticated air defence systems, known as National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS), from the United States. Zelenskiy has repeatedly warned that “pseudo-referendums" on annexation by Russia would destroy any chance of peace talks.
One of the senior figures in his administration, Mykhailo Podolyak, called on Tuesday for any referendums to be met by an increase in international economic sanctions on Russia and increased arms supplies to Ukraine, including Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, a guided missile with a range of 300 km.
WHICH LAND WAS ANNEXED?
Russia planned to annex around 15% of Ukraine that its forces control as well as about 3% of Ukraine that it does not control - including frontlines where Ukrainian soldiers are still fighting, for example in the Donetsk region.
The areas include:
* A big chunk of eastern Ukraine, known as Donbas, where high concentrations of ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians live.
The two parts of the Donbas now include the self-styled Donetsk (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republics (LPR), which Putin recognised as independent states just before the Feb. 24 invasion. A frontline runs through Donetsk.
Referendums were held in 2014 in the two areas on secession from Ukraine.
* Russian-controlled Kherson region.
* Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia.
Taken together, Russia annexed at least 90,000 square km of Ukrainian territory. That is an area around the same size of Hungary or Portugal.
Russia, which recognised Ukraine’s post-Soviet borders in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, annexed Crimea in 2014. With Crimea and the territory in the four other areas, Russia would have annexed at least one fifth of Ukrainian territory.
HOW QUICKLY DID THE FORMAL ANNEXATION HAPPEN?
Fast. After the referendums, the four regions’ Kremlin-backed leaders had formally requested annexation after claiming residents backed the move.
After Russian forces on Feb. 27, 2014 took control of Crimea, which has an ethnic Russian majority and was transferred to Ukraine in Soviet times, a referendum on joining Russia was held on March 16.
Crimea’s leaders declared a 97% vote to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. Russia formally added Crimea on March 21, less than a month after invading it.
WHAT DOES PUTIN SAY?
Putin says the Russians and the Russian-speakers of Ukraine have been persecuted by Kyiv and that he will never give them up to “executioners". Ukraine denies it has persecuted the Russian speakers, many of whom look to Moscow.
The Kremlin chief denies a distinct Ukrainian identity, saying it is an artificial construct partly the result of Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, who, after the Red Army took Kyiv, instituted the borders of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic after the collapse of the Russian empire.
In the 2001 Ukrainian census, 17% of people identified themselves as Russian with 78% of people identifying as Ukrainian. Ukrainian is by far the most spoken language in the country followed by Russian.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine began in 2014 after a pro-Russian president was toppled in Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and Russia annexed Crimea, with Russian-backed forces fighting Ukraine’s armed forces.
About 14,000 people were killed in eastern Ukraine between 2014 and the end of 2021, according to the he UN Human Rights Office, including 3,106 civilians.