President Vladimir Putin is set to sign agreements Friday that will absorb into Russia thousands of square miles of Ukrainian territory in what will be the largest forcible annexation of land in Europe since 1945.
The agreements will be signed at a ceremony at the Kremlin, three days after hastily-conducted referendums concluded in the four areas of Ukraine that Moscow will now consider Russian territory.
Putin will deliver a speech and meet with Russian-backed leaders of the four occupied regions, according to the Kremlin.
Ukraine and its western allies have categorically rejected the planned annexation of the four regions – Donetsk, Luhansk and much of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, a swathe of Ukrainian land that contains heavy industry, rich farmland and a critical freshwater conduit for Crimea.
Donetsk and Luhansk are home to two breakaway republics that Moscow has backed since 2014, while Kherson and parts of Zaporizhzhia have been controlled by Russian forces since shortly after the invasion began in late February.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has asserted that if the Kremlin presses ahead with annexation, any negotiation with Putin will be impossible.
In all, Russia plans to raise its flag over some 100,000 square kilometers (38,600 square miles) of Ukrainian territory in what is a flagrant breach of international law and after votes dismissed by the great majority of countries, including some friends of Russia like Serbia, as null and void.
While the international community will reject Russia’s plan almost in unison (expect a few outliers like Syria and North Korea), annexation does change the “facts on the ground” and diminishes the prospects for any negotiated settlement.
There’s a huge difference between withdrawing from occupied land (as the Russians did in April when they pulled back from much of northern Ukraine) and giving up areas that has been formally and ceremonially absorbed into the motherland – especially for a leader like Putin who is fixated with a “greater Russia.”
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