President Putin (center) Friday with the four leaders that Russia has appointed in the four provinces in eastern Ukraine.Image via Reuters

    Putin kicked off the Kremlin ceremony for the official annexation of the four provinces in eastern Ukraine Friday afternoon with a speech that came close to declaring war on the United States. He promised that Russia will lead an “anti-colonial movement” against US hegemony.

    The defeats in Ukraine — Russia’s greatest military defeats since the collapse of the Soviet Union — seem to have fueled an even deeper hatred of the West in Putin. For half an hour, he recounted all the evils for which he holds the US responsible—from the 1945 bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima to gender operations, from the wars in Korea and Vietnam to racism and Russophobia. “The West is always looking for new ways to weaken and destroy Russia and play our people off against each other,” Putin said.

    “This is by far the most anti-American speech Vladimir Putin has ever given,” said Yelena Chernenko, defense analyst at Russia’s business newspaper. Kommersant. ‘Munich 2007’ is child talk compared to this,” she said, referring to the historic speech in which Putin turned against the West.

    In a joint response immediately after the speech, the 27 heads of government of the European Union declared that they “never recognize” the annexation. They also immediately announced additional sanctions against Russia, just like the US did.

    Land loss

    The patriotic revelry in the Kremlin is in stark contrast to the mood among the Russian military on the battlefield. After heavy defeats in northeastern Ukraine, a large group of Russian soldiers was surrounded on Friday in the city of Lyman. If the Ukrainian army takes that city, it can push through to Luhansk province. Meanwhile, Russia is hitting back hard. At least 25 civilians were killed in an attack on a Ukrainian humanitarian convoy near Zaporizhzhya.

    None of the four provinces is wholly Russian-owned. Only Kherson and Luhansk are almost completely occupied, but Russia is losing ground. One third of Zaporizhzhya and almost half of Donetsk is in the hands of the Ukrainian army. That means in Russian geopolitical reality, Ukrainian military forces now dominate Russian territory. Yet Putin has not (yet) officially declared war on Ukraine.

    Early in his speech, Putin emphasized the referendums in the annexed provinces of the past few days, which have been viewed as a sham by almost the entire world. “The rulers in Kyiv have to accept the will of the people. Their choice is certain.’ Putin said he would defend the four provinces “with all the means at our disposal”, again hinting at the use of nuclear weapons.

    Peace Negotiations

    By targeting the West, Putin tried to divert attention from domestic affairs. He said nothing about the unprecedented protests and fleeing Russians. Not a word about the current mobilization and whether it should be expanded or not. The feared closure of the national borders is also (for the time being) not forthcoming.

    Putin called for a ceasefire and said he would be willing to sit at the negotiating table if Ukraine recognizes the annexation. But peace negotiations are further away than ever. The Russian constitution prohibits the president from handing over Russian territory. “The citizens of the four provinces will become and remain our citizens forever,” Putin said in his speech. Just under 9 million people live in the four provinces.

    Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly stated that he has no intention of giving up even an inch of territory. In a video message to the UN Security Council, Zelensky said on Tuesday evening that the mock referendums make negotiations impossible. Zelensky responded to Putin’s speech by requesting accelerated entry to NATO. “De facto we have already found our way to NATO,” he said on Telegram. “This is a decisive step.” It seems unlikely that the request will be accepted: under Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, an attack on one member state means an attack on all member states. Thus, Russia would be at war with all NATO countries.

    Zelensky also lashed out furiously at Putin. “The enemy seeks revenge for our steadfastness and its failures. Bloodthirsty scum! Every lost Ukrainian life will be returned.’

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