CNN

Russia will annex nearly a fifth of Ukraine and make millions of people living there “permanent” Russian citizens, President Vladimir Putin said on Friday, in flagrant violation of international law.

Once the process is officially completed, Moscow will recognize four Ukrainian regions as Russian territories: Luhansk and Donetsk – home to two Russian-backed breakaway republics where fighting has raged since 2014 – as well as Kherson and Zaporizhia, two regions in southern Ukraine. Immediately after the invasion began, the Russian army occupied it.

Putin announced the annexation in a formal speech at the Kremlin’s grand St. George Hall on Friday. It follows a so-called referendum in the regions that has been universally dismissed as “a sham” by Ukraine and the West.

However, Putin tried to claim that the referendum reflected the will of “millions” of people, despite reports from the ground that the vote was essentially – and in some cases, virtually – held at gunpoint.

Russia will now go ahead with its plans to raise its flag over nearly 100,000 square kilometers (38,600 square miles) of Ukrainian territory – the largest forcible annexation of territory in Europe since 1945, despite widespread international condemnation.

In his speech, Putin framed the alliance as an attempt to correct what he sees as a major historical mistake: Russia’s demise after the collapse of the Soviet Union and continued Western efforts to keep Russia weak.

He repeated baseless accusations that Russian-speakers were being massacred – a false pretext used by Russia to invade Ukraine in February.

All in all, it was the Russian leader’s commitment to continue pursuing his main foreign policy goal: to restore Russia as a major world power charged with protecting the Russian-speaking world from the continuing threat posed by Western forces.

“We remember the terrible and hungry 1990s, but Russia survived and became stronger. And it has its place in the world,” Putin said. “But the West is still trying to weaken us, to divide us into pieces.”

Putin said that while he was willing to negotiate with Ukraine, the sovereignty of those four regions would not be on the table.

“I want the Kyiv authorities and their true masters in the West to listen to me. For everyone to remember. People living in Luhansk and Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhia are becoming our citizens. Forever,” the Russian president said at the annexation ceremony on Friday.

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