Russian President Vladimir Putin signed treaties on Friday to annex parts of Ukraine in defiance of international law, saying Moscow would protect the newly incorporated regions by all available means.
He also urged Ukraine to sit down for peace talks but immediately insisted he won't discuss handing them back, opening a new escalatory phase of his seven-month invasion of the country.
Kyiv and the West have rejected his land-grab in Ukraine. The European Union's 27 member states said they will never recognize the illegal referendums that Russia organized as a pretext for this further violation of Ukraine's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
In a Kremlin ceremony at the ornate St. George's Hall to herald the annexation of the occupied parts of Ukraine, Putin accused the West of fueling the hostilities as part of what he said is a plan to turn Russia into a colony and a crowd of slaves. The hardening of his position, in the conflict that has killed and wounded tens of thousands of people, further cranked up tensions, already at levels unseen since the Cold War.
The European Union immediately responded to Putin's latest step with a joint statement rejecting and condemning the illegal annexation of the four regions: Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
Ukraine vowed to continue fighting.
“We don't pay attention to those whose time to take pills has come. The army is working, Ukraine is united, only moving forward,” said Andrii Yermak, head of the presidential office.
The ceremony came three days after the completion in the occupied regions of Kremlin-orchestrated referendums on joining Russia that were dismissed by Kyiv and the West as a bare-faced land grab held at gunpoint and based on lies.
In his speech railing at the West, Putin urged Ukraine to sit down for talks and said it should treat the Kremlin-managed votes with respect. But he immediately qualified his offer of negotiations with a stern warning that surrendering control of the four regions would not be on the table.
Putin portrayed his invasion as part of a historical mission to reclaim Russia's great power status and counter Western domination that he said is collapsing. “History has called us to a battlefield to fight for our people, for the grand historic Russia, for future generations,” he said.
The separatist Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine have been backed by Moscow since declaring independence in 2014, weeks after the annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. The southern Kherson region and part of neighbouring Zaporizhzhia were captured by Russia soon after Putin sent troops into Ukraine on February 24.
Both houses of the Kremlin-controlled Russian parliament will meet next week to rubber-stamp the treaties for the regions to join Russia, sending them to Putin for his approval.
Putin and his lieutenants have bluntly warned Ukraine against pressing an offensive to reclaim the regions, saying Russia would view it as an act of aggression threats that Moscow can back up with the world's largest arsenal of nuclear warheads.
The Kremlin-organized votes in Ukraine were an attempt by Putin to avoid more defeats on the battlefields that could threaten his 22-year rule. By setting Russia's gains in stone, at least on paper, Putin seemingly hopes to scare Ukraine and its Western backers with the prospect of an increasingly escalatory conflict unless they back down which they show no signs of doing.
Russia controls most of the Luhansk and Kherson regions, about 60% of the Donetsk region and a large chunk of the Zaporizhzhia region where it took control of Europe's largest nuclear power plant.
The push forward with annexation comes with the Kremlin on the verge of another stinging battlefield loss, with reports of the imminent Ukrainian encirclement of the eastern city of Lyman.
Retaking it could open the path for Ukraine to push deep into Luhansk, one of the regions Russia is absorbing.
“It looks quite pathetic. Ukrainians are doing something, taking steps in the real material world, while the Kremlin is building some kind of virtual reality, incapable of responding in the real world,” former Kremlin speechwriter turned political analyst Abbas Gallyamov said.
“People understand that the politics is now on the battlefield,” he added. “What's important is who advances and who retreats. In that sense, the Kremlin cannot offer anything comforting to the Russians,” he added.
A Ukrainian counteroffensive has deprived Moscow of mastery on the military fields of battle. Its hold of the Luhansk region appears increasingly shaky, as Ukrainian forces make inroads there, with the pincer assault on Lyman. Ukraine also still has a large foothold in the neighbouring Donetsk region.
The Russian-backed separatist leader of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, said the city is now half-encircled by Ukrainian forces. In comments reported by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, he described the setback as worrying news. “Ukraine's armed formations are trying very hard to spoil our celebration,” he said.