By Lauren Said-Moorhouse, Mick Krever and Uliana Pavlova, CNN
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he expects the situation to stabilize in four war-torn regions of Ukraine after signing legislation to annex them on Wednesday, despite the fact that Russia’s military does not fully control those areas.
While Russian state television hailed Putin’s inking of the annexation process, pro-Kremlin pundits delivered rare dispatches on the growing setbacks faced by Moscow’s troops on the ground.
Russian forces appear to be buckling under growing pressure as Ukraine continues to regain territory in the south, where Russian soldiers have been forced to retreat from previously-held settlements as Kyiv progresses with its counteroffensive towards the Russian-occupied city of Kherson.
Despite losing territory in the south to Ukrainian military at rapid pace, Putin on Wednesday signed several laws ratifying the Russian Federation’s claimed annexation of four Ukrainian regions — Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.
In a bid to celebrate the news, Putin took the opportunity in a televised meeting for Teachers’ Day to congratulate educators from “all 89 regions of Russia,” a number that includes the newly annexed territories.
Putin said he was “pleased” and “surprised” by the referendums’ results and claimed that the regions will now be stabilized and developed while “helping strengthen the country as a whole.”
The annexations are illegal under international law. World leaders have said they are the result of “sham” referendums that will never be recognized.
Donetsk and Luhansk are both in eastern Ukraine, and fighting against Moscow-backed breakaway republics in each region has been raging since 2014. Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are in southern Ukraine and have been occupied by Russian forces since shortly after the invasion began in late February.
Russia has vowed to take control of all of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, but its goals in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson are less clear, which has created confusion about the boundaries that Russia is claiming.
Amid the uncertainty, Russia and Ukraine on Wednesday also issued conflicting announcements over the management of Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Putin signed a decree to claim the plant, the largest complex of its kind in Europe, as under Russian state control; meanwhile the head of Energoatom, Ukraine’s state nuclear energy company, said that he was taking charge.
“Undoubtedly, our work, our destiny, our homes and our future are with Ukraine, as always. We will continue to work in accordance with Ukrainian legislation, in the Ukrainian energy system, in Energoatom. Don’t doubt it!” Petro Kotin said in a video address to the plant’s employees.
That Russia does not have full control of the regions it claims to have seized was made clear by a map used by the Russian Defense Ministry in its daily briefing on Tuesday. The map confirmed significant Russian losses in Kherson compared to a map of the same area used in a ministry briefing a day before. It reinforces reports from Ukrainian and pro-Russian officials, as well as pro-Russian military analysts, of significant Ukrainian gains towards Kherson, down the western bank of the Dnieper River.
Lieutenant General Igor Konashenkov, who spoke while the map was shown full-screen, did not mention the losses. However, he said that Russian military destroyed Ukrainian armor and killed Ukrainian forces in the area of several towns that are now understood to be under Ukrainian control — a tacit acknowledgment of Kyiv’s push.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky praised the military for their “fast and powerful advances” in his Tuesday evening address, before celebrating that “dozens of settlements have already been liberated” this week.
In Kherson region, he said that Liubymivka, Khreshchenivka, Zolota Balka, Biliaiivka, Ukraiinka, Velyka, Mala Oleksandrivka, and Davydiv Brid had all been reclaimed, “and this is not a complete list.”
“Our warriors do not stop. And it is only a matter of time when we will expel the occupier from all our land,” the president added.
Zelensky on Wednesday assembled his top military and security staff to consider plans for “further liberation of Ukrainian territories,” according to the readout of the meeting from the President’s office.
In addition to Ukraine’s successes in the south, Kyiv’s forces made gains in Luhansk in the east with forces approaching the region from several directions, and over the weekend liberated the strategic city of Lyman, a key operational hub in Donetsk which the Russian army had used to funnel troops and supplies to the west and south.
The Russian Defense Ministry said it was forced to cede Lyman or risk encirclement of its troops there, allowing Ukrainian forces to potentially use the city as a staging post to push troops further east.
Asked by CNN how to interpret the language of the laws signed by Putin — which refers to the borders of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions as “the territory which existed on the day of its adoption in the Russian Federation” — Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, “I will leave this question unanswered.”
When pressed to clarify by CNN, Peskov added: “You should read the decree; there is a legal wording there. On the whole, of course, we are talking about the territory in which the military-civilian administration operated at the time of its adoption [as part of the Russian Federation].”
‘Painful as getting thumped on your melon’
The Russian-appointed deputy leader in the occupied Kherson region explained Ukraine’s rapid advance in recent days by saying that the Russian military was “regrouping.”
“The Russian army is conducting maneuvers,” Kirill Stremousov told Russian state news RIA Novosti. “The regrouping of the front in the current conditions allows us to gather strength and strike.”
The phrase “regrouping” was also used by the Russian Defense Ministry in September to describe the retreat of the Russian military in response to Ukraine’s offensive that recaptured the key city of Izium, in the Kharkiv region.
Stremousov on Wednesday claimed that Ukraine’s advance had been stopped, and that it was “impossible” for them to enter the occupied city of Kherson.
However, pro-Russian media has been uncommonly critical of the war effort in recent days, delivering gloomy reports that Russia’s campaign is suffering an operational crisis while Ukraine takes advantage on the battlefield.
“In the Kherson region, we have lost 17 settlements,” Alexander Sladkov, a leading Russian war correspondent, conceded on state TV Tuesday, before placing the blame on “fat” US weapons deliveries and “intelligence gathered via satellite reconnaissance.”
Sladkov is just one of several Russian correspondents to convey the losses Russia is suffering.
Alexander Kots, a correspondent for pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, who is embedded with Russian forces in the occupied eastern city of Svatove, told his Telegram followers Wednesday that the military lacks the manpower necessary to hold off a further Ukrainian advance into the Luhansk region.
“The Russian troops do not have enough manpower to stop the enemy attacks,” Kots said in a video. “The recent Russian losses are directly connected to that. It’s a very difficult period of time on the front line at the moment.”
He said that “we expect a serious fighting here very soon,” and that “it remains to be seen if it could stop the enemy advances.”
Kots confirmed that Russian forces were trying to fortify their defense at the line connecting the occupied cities of Kreminna and Svatova. Yuriy Podolyaka, a pro-Russian military blogger said on Monday that Russian troops had withdrawn to the Zherebets River, which runs just west of Kreminna and Svatova.
He said that Ukrainian forces are “on the high and enjoying a numeric advantage.”
“They don’t have problems with the intelligence data or high-precision weapons which they are constantly using. We are just waiting for our reserves to become fighting fit and join the battle.”
Meanwhile, state media reporter Evgeniy Poddubnyy, a correspondent for Russia 24, said Tuesday that “we’re going through the hardest time on the frontline” and that “for the time being it will become even harder.”
Sladkov, for his part, tried to put a positive spin on things.
“This doesn’t mean that we’ve collapsed like a house of cards. These mistakes aren’t gigantic strategic failures. We are still learning. I know this is hard to hear in our eighth month of the special operation. But we are reporters. We are waiting for reinforcements.
Host Olga Skabeeva appeared visibly angry, before asking Sladkov if the entire Kherson region was in danger of being lost.
“We don’t have enough troops at the moment to move on Kyiv or to quickly take Kharkiv, but they are sufficient to continue protecting the territories that we are already protecting,” he responded. “In straightening out our front line, we’ve had to retreat from these settlements.”
He added: “It’s as painful as getting thumped on your melon. We’ve suffered losses. But it’s war. And these kinds of things happen in war. [Reinforcements] are coming, along with their equipment. I don’t lie or engage in propaganda. I’m just a regular reporter who is describing what is happening.”
Sladkov’s admission on State TV was his second in less than a month, after he previously admitted that Russian forces had endured heavy losses on September 13, a Tuesday. At the beginning of this Tuesday’s interview, Sladkov quipped: “I only tell the truth on Tuesdays, and for other days I just make everything up.”
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CNN’s Josh Berlinger, Julia Kesaieva, Victoria Butenko, Josh Pennington, Anna Chernova and Radina Gigova contributed to this report.