Russia officially annexes 4 disputed Ukraine regions, leaves door open for more
Ukraine raises flags over multiple villages during massive counter-offensive
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed laws that claimed four regions of Ukraine as Russia's territory on Wednesday, while his country's military struggled to control the illegally annexed areas. In a defiant move, the Kremlin held the door open for further land grabs in Ukraine.
Speaking in a conference call with reporters, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that "certain territories will be reclaimed, and we will keep consulting residents who would be eager to embrace Russia."
Putin last week signed treaties that purport to absorb Ukraine's Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions into Russia. The move followed Kremlin-orchestrated "referendums" in Ukraine that the Ukrainian government and the West have dismissed as illegitimate.
Peskov did not specify which additional Ukrainian territories Moscow is eyeing and he wouldn't say if the Kremlin planned to organize more such "referendums."
Putin said on Wednesday that Russia would stabilize the situation in the regions, an indirect acknowledgement of the challenges it faces to assert its control.
The Russian moves come as momentum in the war has clearly swung in Ukraine's favour since the start of September.
Thousands of Russian troops fled their positions after the front line crumbled — first in the northeast and, since the start of this week, in the south.
"We proceed from the fact that the situation will be stabilized, we will be able to calmly develop these territories," Putin said in televised remarks.
The Russian leader, speaking at an award ceremony for teachers, also said he had great respect for the Ukrainian people.
"We always, and even today despite the current tragedy, hold great respect for the Ukrainian people, Ukrainian culture, language, literature and so on," Putin said.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions of Ukrainians have fled their homes and their country since Putin ordered Russia's invasion on Feb. 24.
The annexation is Europe's biggest since the Second World War and represents up to 18 per cent 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 per cent of Ukraine, though it has yet to spell out where all of the borders will be located.
Putin has vowed to defend Russia's territory — including the annexed regions — with any means at his military's disposal, including nuclear weapons.
Kyiv, meanwhile, said it will never accept an illegal imperial-style land grab and has recaptured much of its own territory in recent weeks.
The head of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's office, Andriy Yermak, wrote on his Telegram channel shortly after Putin signed the annexation legislation that "the worthless decisions of the terrorist country are not worth the paper they are signed on."
Zelenskyy responded to the annexation by announcing Ukraine's fast-track application to join NATO. In a decree released Tuesday, he also ruled out negotiations with Russia.
In his nightly address, Zelenskyy switched to Russian to tell the Kremlin that it has already lost because it still has to explain to Russian society why the war and the mobilization are necessary.
"And more and more citizens of Russia are realizing that they must die simply because one person does not want to end the war," Zelenskyy said.
Alleged torture chamber
In the eastern Kharkiv region, more disturbing images emerged from areas recently reclaimed from Russia.
Serhiy Bolvinov, who heads the investigative department of the national police in the region, said authorities are investigating an alleged Russian torture chamber in the village of Pisky-Radkivski.
On the battlefield, Russia and Ukraine gave conflicting assessments on Wednesday of a Ukrainian counter-offensive in the Russian-occupied Kherson region. A Moscow-installed regional official insisted that Ukrainian advances had been halted.
However, the Ukrainian military said the Ukrainian flag had been raised above seven Kherson villages previously occupied by the Russians. The closest of the liberated villages to the city of Kherson is Davydiv Brid, some 100 kilometres away.
In the neighbouring Mykolaiv region, the governor said Russian troops have started to withdraw from Snihurivka, a city of 12,000 that Moscow seized early in the war and annexed along with the Kherson region. A Russian-installed official in Snihurivka, Yury Barbashov, denied that Russian troops had lost control of the city, a strategic railway hub, but said the Ukrainian forces were advancing.
In central Ukraine, multiple explosions rocked Bila Tserkva, a city about 80 kilometres south of the capital, Kyiv.
The blasts set off fires at what were described as infrastructure facilities, regional leader Oleksiy Kuleba said on the Telegram messaging app.
Early indications were the city was attacked with loitering munitions, sometimes known as kamikaze drones. Russia has increasingly employed the devices in recent weeks, posing a new challenge to Ukrainian defences.
The unmanned vehicles can stay aloft for long periods of time before diving into targets and detonating their payloads at the last moment.
Zelenskyy 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 the Iranian devices.
Meanwhile, a different sort of battle was taking place on energy markets.
European Union countries agreed on Wednesday to impose a price cap on Russian oil and other new sanctions.
OPEC+ could raise gas prices again
Diplomats struck the deal in Brussels that also includes curbs on EU exports of aircraft components to Russia and limits on steel imports from the country, according to an official statement from the Czech rotating EU presidency.
The 27-nation bloc will impose a ban on transporting Russian oil by sea to other countries above the price cap, which the Group of Seven wealthy democracies want in place by Dec. 5, when an EU embargo on most Russian oil takes effect.
For its part, 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.
Also, the OPEC+ alliance of oil-exporting countries on Wednesday decided to sharply cut the amount of crude it ships to the global economy — a move that could help Russia weather a looming European ban on oil imports and raise gasoline prices for U.S. drivers just ahead of national midterm elections.
Energy ministers from the OPEC cartel, whose leading member is Saudi Arabia, and allied non-members including Russia met in Vienna Wednesday.
Other news of the war
In a tussle for control over Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Europe's biggest, the head of Ukraine's state nuclear energy company said he was taking charge of it and urged workers not to sign any documents with its Russian occupiers. Energoatom chief Petro Kotin made his comments in a video address posted on Telegram after Russia said it planned to supervise the plant's operations.
Russian TV journalist Marina Ovsyannikova, accused of spreading fake news after staging a series of lone protests against the war in Ukraine, said on Wednesday she had fled house arrest because she had no case to answer. "I consider myself completely innocent, and since our state refuses to comply with its own laws, I refuse to comply with the measure of restraint imposed on me," she said.
Hosting World Cup matches in 2030 would be "the dream of people who survived the horrors of war," Ukrainian soccer federation president Andriy Pavelko said on Wednesday after his country launched a joint bid with Spain and Portugal amid the invasion and occupation by Russia.
With files from Reuters and CBC News