- Zelenskiy says Ukraine retakes territory in rapid advance
- Moscow maps show shrinking controlled areas
- Putin signs annexation law nonetheless
- Russian forces dig in to try to stem Ukraine advance
President Vladimir Putin formally incorporated four partially-occupied Ukrainian regions into Russia on Wednesday, a move Kyiv condemned as a meaningless land grab dreamt up by "a collective madhouse".
Pushing ahead with Europe's biggest annexation since World War Two, Putin signed off on a law annexing up to 18% of Ukraine, some of which Moscow's forces do not control.
Including Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, Moscow is laying claim to almost a quarter of Ukraine, though it has yet to spell out where all of the borders will be located and its own troops have been forced to retreat on two fronts.
The Russian leader's signature was the final stage in the legal process to annex Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine and Zaporizhzhia and Kherson in the south. He later said Russia would stabilise the situation there, an indirect acknowledgment of the challenges it faces to assert its control.
Kyiv says it will never accept an illegal imperial-style land grab and has recaptured hundreds of square miles of its own territory in recent weeks.
Andriy Yermak, head of Ukraine's presidential office, said on Telegram that what Russia was doing reminded him of a "collective madhouse".
"Worthless decisions by a terrorist country are not worth the paper they are signed on," he said.
With even Russian state TV hosts showing signs of despondency at the battlefield losses, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the idea that they undermined the annexation of the regions.
"They will be with Russia forever and they (ceded land in the new territories) will be returned", a defiant Peskov told reporters.
A map published by the state RIA news agency suggested Russia wants big chunks of Ukraine under the control of the Ukrainian army which has been rapidly advancing in the east, and which this week made a breakthrough in the south too.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Tuesday night that his military had taken back dozens of towns in regions in the south and east that Russia has declared annexed.
Reuters could not independently verify his statements.
"This week alone, since the Russian pseudo-referendum, dozens of population centres have been liberated. These are in Kherson, Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk regions all together," Zelenskiy said.
Moscow moved ahead with its annexation plan after holding what it called referendums over several days from Sept. 23 – votes that were denounced by Kyiv and Western governments as illegal and coercive.
The European Union agreed a new package of sanctions on Wednesday to punish Russia for the annexation plan. The measures include more restrictions in trade with Russia in steel and tech products, and an oil price cap for Russian seaborne crude deliveries through European insurers to align the bloc with Washington.
Zelenskiy earlier met Ukraine's top military officials to discuss their next steps, including to counter new types of weapons used by Russia, a probable reference to Iranian-made drones.
The Ukrainian air force said 12 drones had attacked from the south overnight, six of which had been shot down.
ENERGY, NUCLEAR WRANGLES
Moscow, which has cut gas supplies to Europe blaming Western sanctions and technical difficulties, has started withdrawing gas from the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany, which never entered into service due to East-West tensions, and redirecting it to Russia, Denmark said.
Gazprom had filled the pipeline, one string of which was unscathed despite mysterious underwater explosions last month which damaged the other string, in case it ever became operational. Gazprom said a day earlier it planned to empty the string of gas to check its integrity.
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 the Telegram messaging app after Russia said it planned to supervise the plant's operations.
The dispute erupted after Russian forces briefly detained the Ukrainian who had been in charge of the plant, where Ukrainian staff are still working. The UN nuclear watchdog said he had been released but would not return to his job.
On the battlefield, Russian forces who have been forced to retreat in recent days have dug in at new positions where they hope to halt the Ukrainian advance, Ukrainian and Russian officials have said.
Russian defence ministry maps presented on Tuesday also appeared to show rapid withdrawals of Russian forces from areas in eastern and southern Ukraine where they have been under severe pressure from the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
In the east, Ukrainian forces have been expanding an offensive after capturing the main Russian bastion in the north of Donetsk, the town of Lyman.
The southern Operational Command of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) said that in some areas of the front line, Ukraine had extended the area held by up to 20 km (12 miles).
Russian forces were destroying their reserves of ammunition and trying to destroy bridges and crossings in order to slow the Ukrainian advance, the UAF said in its daily report.
In Kherson, withdrawing Russian forces were planting mines on "infrastructure facilities" and in homes, it said.
Russia's Defence Ministry said on Wednesday that its forces were holding positions in Kherson region and "repelling attacks by superior enemy forces."
Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the eastern Luhansk region, told Ukrainian TV that there was heavy fighting there.
"This is not a military parade. It's war, and unfortunately our guys are also being killed," Gaidai said.