CNN  — 

President Vladimir Putin announced Russia would seize of nearly a fifth of Ukraine on Friday, declaring that the millions of people living there would be Russian citizens “forever.”

Under the annexation process, which is illegal under international law, Moscow will recognize four Ukrainian regions as Russian territory: Luhansk and Donetsk – home to two Russian-backed breakaway republics where fighting has been ongoing since 2014 – as well as Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, two areas in southern Ukraine that have been occupied by Russian forces since shortly after the invasion began.

Putin’s announcement, made in a formal speech at the Kremlin’s opulent St. George’s Hall on Friday, follows so-called referendums in the regions that were universally dismissed as “shams” by Ukraine and Western nations.

Putin, however, attempted to claim that the referendums reflected the will of “millions” of people, despite reports from the ground suggesting that voting took place essentially – and in some cases, literally – at gunpoint. Western leaders have slammed the polls, saying that they fail to meet internationally recognized standards of free and fair elections.

The annexation announcement was met with a similar outcry. Members of the G7 – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States – and the European Union have vowed to never recognize Russian sovereignty over the regions and to impose sanctions on Russia. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington would