President Vladimir Putin proclaimed Russia’s annexation of a swath of Ukraine on Friday in a speech at the Kremlin but the event WAS overshadowed by one of Russia’s worst battlefield defeats of the war, with one of its main garrisons surrounded.
“People living in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson region and Zaporizhzhia region are becoming our compatriots forever,” Putin told a crowd of officials in a ceremony in an ornate hall.
“We will defend our land with all our strength and all our means,” he said, calling on “the Kyiv regime to immediately cease hostilities and return to the negotiation table”.
Putin’s proclamation of Russian rule over 15% of Ukraine – the biggest annexation in Europe since World War Two – has been firmly rejected by Western countries and even many of Russia’s close allies. U.N. General Secretary Antonio Guterres called it an illegal violation of the U.N. charter.
It comes as Russian forces have faced setbacks on the battlefield, with one of the worst so far looming even as Putin spoke. Pro-Russian officials acknowledged that Russian troops were on the verge of encirclement in Lyman, their main garrison in the north of Donetsk province.
Defeat there could open the way for Ukraine to recapture swathes of the territory that Putin has now declared to be part of Russia.
The war’s brutality was further hammered home just hours before Putin’s speech when missiles struck a convoy of civilian cars preparing to cross the frontline from Ukrainian-held territory in Zaporozhzhia province. Reuters saw a dozen bodies amid blasted cars in a scene of carnage. Ukraine said 25 people had been killed and 74 wounded.
“The enemy is raging and seeking revenge for our steadfastness and his failures,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy wrote on Telegram. “Bloodthirsty scum! You will definitely answer. For every lost Ukrainian life!”
The encirclment of Russia’s garrison at Lyman leaves Ukrainian forces an open path to seize more territory in Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, captured earlier in some of the war’s bitterest fighting.
The pro-Russian leader in Donetsk acknowledged troops had lost full control of Yampil and Dobryshev, villages north and east of the city of Lyman, leaving Moscow’s garrison “half-encircled”.
The Ukrainian army was “trying at all costs to spoil our historic events”, Denis Pushilin said. “This is very unpleasant news, but we must look soberly at the situation and draw conclusions from our mistakes.”
Ukraine’s military said it was withholding details of the situation on the battlefield until the area was stabilised, but that an operation was under way to encircle Russian forces.
“All the approaches and logistic routes of the enemy, through which they delivered ammunition and manpower, are in fact under fire control” of the Ukrainian army, said Serhii Cherevatyi, a spokesperson Ukrainian troops in the east.
Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksiy Goncharenko tweeted: “Lyman is surrounded! The Ukrainian army is already in Yampil. The Russian army is trying to escape.”
Pro-Russian military bloggers reported Ukrainian forces had cut off the escape of thousands of Russian troops. Pushilin said one road to Lyman was still open, though he acknowledged it was now under Ukrainian artillery fire.
SHEETS DRAPED OVER BODIES
Hours before Putin spoke, 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.
Ukrainian officials called it a deliberate Russian attempt to sever the last links across the front. Moscow blamed the Ukrainians.
The convoy was assembling at a car park near Zaporizhzhia, the Ukrainian-held capital of a region Moscow claims to be annexing. One checkpoint in the area has been open in recent days allowing civilians to cross the frontline.
A crater had been gouged in the ground. The impact had thrown chunks of dirt into the air and sprayed shrapnel across cars packed with belongings, blankets and suitcase. Reuters saw around a dozen bodies.
Plastic sheets were draped over the bodies of a woman and young man in a green car. Two bodies lay in a white mini-van in front of another car, its windows blown out and the sides pitted with shrapnel. The corpse of an elderly woman lay nearby, next to her shopping bag.
A woman who gave her name as Nataliya said she and her husband had visited their children in Zaporizhzhia and were preparing to cross back into Russian-held territory.
“We were returning to my mother who is 90 years old. We have been spared. It’s a miracle,” she said, standing with her husband beside their car.
Police Colonel Sergey Ujryumov, head of the Zaporizhzhia police’s explosives disposal unit, said the car park was hit by three S300 missiles.
Pro-Russian officials said, without evidence, that Ukraine was to blame for the attack. Russia has always denied its forces target civilians, despite countless confirmed incidents documented by the United Nations and other bodies.
Russia’s annexation of the Russian-occupied areas of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia was being carried out after what the West denounced as phoney referendums at gunpoint.
Since Putin’s troops were forced to flee from Ukraine’s Kharkiv province this month, he has chosen to escalate the war. Last week he endorsed the annexation of Russian-held territory, ordered the call-up of hundreds of thousands of reservists, and threatened to use nuclear weapons if Russia was attacked.
Zelenskiy promised a strong response to the annexations and summoned his defence and security chiefs for an emergency meeting on Friday.