Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared four Ukrainian regions part of Russia, amid renewed warnings the Kremlin may use a strategic nuclear weapon.
In a ceremony at the Kremlin, the authoritarian leader announced that Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia would be subsumed by Russia, following four ‘referendums’, which were widely declared as illegal and a sham.
During a speech in Moscow, the Russian leader held a minute’s silence for ‘fallen soldiers’, with thousands of troops now thought to have died in the war against Ukraine.
He told the assembled audience, of the so-called referendums “The results are known, well known. People made their choice – the only choice.”
Earlier on Friday, Ukrainian troops reportedly ‘half-encircled’ a Russian garrison based around Yampil and Dobryshev in the east of the country. It is being reported as one of the biggest defeats of the Kremlin’s army so far.
Overnight, missiles tore through a convoy of civilian cars preparing to cross from Ukrainian-held territory near Zaporizhzhia into the Russian-occupied zone, killing at least 23 civilians, according to Reuters.
Calling the annexation “the will of millions of people” in Ukraine, he warned Kyiv to “take this expression of will with great respect” and that Russia would protect its new annexed territory “to provide safe living for our people”.
Putin also hit out at the West describing Nato allies as “greedy” and wanting Russia to be its “colony”, accusing it of waging a “hybrid war” against the Kremlin.
“They don’t want to see us a free society. They want to see us as a crowd of slaves,” he added.
“They don’t need Russia. We need Russia!”
This comes after days of controversy in which the Nord Stream pipeline in the North Sea mysteriously exploded.
Nato issued a statement saying it was “reckless, deliberate sabotage” but fell short of blaming Russia.
This comes amid reports Russia will defend the new territory using any means, including threats of nuclear weapons from both Putin himself, and former prime minister and president, Dmitri Medvedev.
Prime Minister Liz Truss responded to the move saying “Vladimir Putin is once again violating international law with his threats to annex more of Ukraine.”
We will not hesitate to take further action, including imposing more sanctions to cripple Putin’s war machine. We will ensure he loses this illegal war.”
Sir Roderic Lyne, the former British ambassador to Russia told the BBC Putin is “trying to warn Ukrainians and the West that he is now considering these four provinces of Ukraine to be Russian territory so any attack on them is going to be treated as an attack on Russia’s territorial integrity.”
“And he [Putin] said explicitly, he will use any means to defend Russia’s territory.”
Saying the nuclear threat should be “taken seriously” – he added using them “would have a massive downside for Russia”.