Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday announced the illegal annexation of four regions of Ukraine.
The regions — Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia — comprise approximately one-fifth of Ukraine, CNN reports. It will be the largest forced land annexation in Europe since 1945.
Putin announced the annexation in St. George's Hall of the Kremlin palace, where he declared the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea a part of Russia in 2014. He claimed that the annexation aligned with the "will of millions of people"; however, ground reports suggest that many of the votes were forced — in some cases, at gunpoint, CNN writes.
The U.S., Ukraine, and western partners have condemned the annexation, refusing to acknowledge the territories as Russian, The New York Times reports. Putin called western elites "the enemy," claiming that they want to weaken Russia, the Times continues. The U.S. has announced new sanctions on Russia in response to the annexation, targeting front companies helping Russia sidestep existing sanctions.
Russia also launched a number of attacks on Ukraine between Thursday and Friday, including in Zaporizhzhia. Further, Putin's announcement arrives just as Russian troops are on the verge of encirclement in Lyman, an area north of Donetsk, Reuters reports. If Ukraine is successful there, it could prove to be one of Russia's biggest losses in the war and allow the Ukrainian recapture of some of the Russia-annexed regions.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a statement, "Russia will annex itself to the catastrophe that it has brought to the occupied territory of our country."