President Vladimir Putin formally incorporated four Ukrainian regions into Russia on Wednesday even as his forces retreated within them, while Moscow stepped up its energy war with Europe by further cutting gas supplies.
Pushing ahead with Europe’s biggest annexation since World War Two, Putin signed off on a law annexing the new territory, which represents up to 18% of Ukraine, some of which Moscow’s forces do not control.
If Crimea is added, which Russia annexed in 2014, Moscow is laying claim to 22% of Ukraine, though it has yet to spell out where all of the borders will be located and its own troops have been forced to retreat on two fronts.
The Russian leader’s signature was the final stage in the legal process to annex Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine and Zaporizhzhia and Kherson in the south.
Kyiv says it will never accept an illegal imperial-style land grab and has recaptured hundreds of thousands of square miles of its own territory in recent weeks.
Andriy Yermak, head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said on Telegram that what Russia was doing reminded him of a “collective madhouse”.
“Worthless decisions by a terrorist country are not worth the paper they are signed on,” he said.
The West has imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia and European Union ambassadors on Wednesday agreed a new package to punish it for the annexation plan, the Czech EU presidency said.
Moscow, which has reduced gas supplies to Europe blaming Western sanctions and technical difficulties, was withdrawing gas from a pipeline to Europe and redirecting it to Russia, Denmark said, citing a statement from Russian gas firm Gazprom.
With even Russian state TV hosts showing signs of despondency at the battlefield losses, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the idea that they undermined the annexation plan.
“They (the four regions) will be with Russia forever and they (ceded land in the new territories) will be returned”, a defiant Peskov told reporters.
A map published by the state RIA news agency suggested Russia wants big chunks of Ukraine under the control of the Ukrainian army which has been rapidly advancing in the east, and which this week made a breakthrough in the south too.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Tuesday night that his military had taken back dozens of towns in regions in the south and east that Russia has declared annexed.
“This week alone, since the Russian pseudo-referendum, dozens of population centres have been liberated. These are in Kherson, Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk regions all together,” Zelenskiy said.
Moscow moved ahead with its annexation plan after holding what it called referendums over several days from September 23 – votes that were denounced by Kyiv and Western governments as illegal and coercive.
Zelenskiy chaired a meeting of Ukraine’s top military officials on Wednesday morning during which they discussed countering new types of weapons used by Russia, a probable reference to Iranian-made drones.
The Ukrainian air force said 12 drones had attacked from the south overnight, six of which had been shot down.
Russian forces who have been forced to retreat in recent days have dug in at new positions where they hope to halt the Ukrainian advance, Russian-installed officials said.
A video released by the Ukraine defence ministry on Tuesday appeared to show the Ukrainian flag being raised over one of those communities, Davydiv Brid, in Kherson.
Russian defence ministry maps presented on Tuesday also appeared to show rapid withdrawals of Russian forces from areas in eastern and southern Ukraine where they have been under severe pressure from the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
In the east, Ukrainian forces have been expanding an offensive after capturing the main Russian bastion in the north of Donetsk, the town of Lyman.
“In some areas of the front line it was possible to extend the area we hold from between 10 to 20 km,” the southern Operational Command of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) said on Wednesday.
Russian forces were destroying their reserves of ammunition and trying to destroy bridges and crossings in order to slow the Ukrainian advance, the UAF said in its daily report.
In Kherson, withdrawing Russian forces were planting mines on “infrastructure facilities” and in homes, it said.
In the past 24 hours, Russia had lost 31 servicemen, more than 40 pieces of equipment, including eight tanks, 26 armoured vehicles, and a large calibre howitzer, it said.
Serhiy Gaidai, governor of Luhansk region, told Ukrainian TV that there was heavy fighting in the east.
“This is not a military parade. It’s war, and unfortunately our guys are also being killed,” Gaidai said.
Russia has escalated its seven-month war with the annexation drive, a military mobilisation and warnings of a possible recourse to nuclear weapons to protect all of its territory.
Moscow hopes a “partial mobilisation” it announced two weeks ago can help reverse a series of battlefield setbacks with some officials saying they intend to retake territory ceded to Ukraine.
Many Russian men have fled the country rather than fight in Ukraine, however, and Russian lawyers say they are working flat out to advise men who want to avoid being drafted.