Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that he expected the situation to “stabilise” in Ukrainian regions annexed by the Kremlin after Moscow suffered military setbacks and lost several key towns to Kyiv.
He also ordered his government to seize control over Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in the Russian-controlled region of Zaporizhzhia with IAEA head Rafael Grossi en route to Kyiv for consultations on the facility.
Ukraine earlier claimed victories over Russian troops in the eastern region of Lugansk as the Kremlin vowed to recapture territory lost in a lightning Ukrainian counteroffensive.
In recent weeks, Ukraine’s forces, bolstered by Western weapons, have wrested Russian troops out of a string of towns and villages in the southern Kherson region and the eastern separatist strongholds of Lugansk and Donetsk.
“We are working on the assumption that the situation in the new territories will stabilise,” Putin told Russian teachers during a televised video call.
Just hours earlier, the Ukrainian-appointed head of Lugansk Sergiy Gaiday announced that the “de-occupation of the Lugansk region has already officially started”.
A senior Russian lawmaker called on military officials to tell the truth about developments on the ground in Ukraine following the string of bruising defeats.
“We need to stop lying,” the chairman of the lower house of parliament’s defence committee, Andrei Kartapolov, told a journalist from state-run media.
“The reports of the defence ministry do not change. The people know. Our people are not stupid. This can lead to loss of credibility.”
– Regions to be ‘Russian forever’ –
Putin on Wednesday signed into legislation his annexation of four Ukrainian territories — including Lugansk — as the European Union agreed a new round of sanctions against Moscow in response.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow would take back land it lost to Kyiv within the annexed regions, vowing they would be “Russian forever and will not be returned”.
Putin initially inked agreements with the Moscow-installed leaders of the four regions to become subjects of the Russian Federation, despite condemnation from Kyiv and the West.
The four territories — Donetsk, Kherson, Lugansk and Zaporizhzhia — create a land corridor between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Moscow in 2014.
Together, the five regions make up around 20 percent of Ukraine.
The Kremlin annexed the territories after hastily conducting referendums, denounced as void by Kyiv and its Western allies, but has yet to confirm what areas exactly of those regions are being annexed.
Russian forces do not have full control over Kherson or Zaporizhzhia and recently lost control of several settlements in Donetsk.
The latest battlefield maps from Moscow showed that Russian troops had left many areas in Kherson, including along the west bank of the Dnipro River.
– ‘Lived like rats’ –
In Kharkiv, the maps indicated that Moscow’s forces had almost entirely abandoned the east bank of the Oskil River, potentially giving the Ukrainians space to shell key Russian troop transportation and supply corridors.
While Russian authorities remain largely silent about the extent of the setbacks, war correspondents of pro-Kremlin media admitted that troops were in trouble.
“There won’t be any good news in the near future. Not from the Kherson front nor from Lugansk,” newspaper journalist Alexander Kots wrote on his Telegram channel with more than 640,000 followers.
In the town of Lyman, Ukrainian police officers were moving back in to the station used until last week by the Russian occupation force.
“They lived like rats,” said the town’s police chief, Igor Ugnivenko, returning to his pre-invasion office and surveying the debris.
In front of the central administration building queues of mainly elderly residents built up for two ambulances distributing meagre humanitarian aid.
“I don’t know if the situation is better or worse,” said 62-year- old Tatiana Slavuta of the town’s recapture by Ukrainian forces.
“All the shops are closed, we don’t have money, we don’t have light. Nothing.
“We don’t see any change,” she added before correcting herself and brightening.
– ‘Now there’s silence’ –
“At least now there’s silence — no shelling.”
Putin’s decision to wrest control of the Zaporizhzhia plant comes after months of tensions around the facility with both sides blaming each other for strikes that had raised fears of a radiation disaster.
“On our way to Kyiv for important meetings,” International Atomic Energy Agency head Rafael Grossi wrote on Twitter, saying the need for a protection zone around the site was “more urgent than ever”.
On Tuesday, US President Joe Biden told Zelensky that another $625 million in military assistance was on the way.
The new batch includes more HIMARS multiple rocket launchers, which have allowed Ukraine to strike Russian command depots and arms stockpiles far behind the frontline.
From the EU, there were no details about the nature of fresh sanctions agreed against Russia.
The latest package — the eighth since Russia’s invasion in February — is now going through a final approval procedure which, if no objections emerge, will be published and come into effect on Thursday, the Czech Republic’s EU ambassador said on Twitter.