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A rocket is launched from a truck-mounted multiple rocket launcher toward Russian positions in Kharkiv region, on Oct. 4.YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed documents for the illegal annexation of four regions of Ukraine on Wednesday – even as the Ukrainian army continues to advance and take its land back.

Mr. Putin’s paperwork would admit Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia into Russia, representing close to 18 per cent of Ukrainian territory. But on the ground, Ukrainian advances are continuing to push back Russian forces. It’s not clear what borders Russia is claiming for the annexed territories and Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov declined to provide specifics.

Mr. Peskov was asked if there was a contradiction between Mr. Putin’s rhetoric and the reality of the retreat on the ground. He said, “There is no contradiction whatsoever. They will be with Russia forever and they will be returned.

“Certain territories will still be returned and we will continue to consult with the population that expresses a desire to live with Russia,” he said.

There is a stark contrast between what the Kremlin is doing and what’s playing out on the battlefield.

The Ukrainian army is pushing back Russian forces on two battlefields roughly 400 kilometres apart, recapturing land in Ukraine’s east and south that Russia claimed to have annexed just days ago.

Ukrainian troops made gains on the ground on Tuesday, even as the upper house of Russia’s parliament voted to approve last week’s annexation of four occupied regions: Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. Russia does not completely control any of those areas.

Ukrainian forces recaptured several villages in an advance along the strategic Dnipro River on Monday, marking their biggest breakthrough in the south since the seven-month war began. In the east, the Ukrainians recaptured the key city of Lyman, and are expanding their offensive in the region.

Ukraine’s success is happening against a backdrop of increasingly dire threats. Mr. Putin has said he will use “all the means at our disposal” to defend the annexed land, suggesting the possibility of a nuclear strike. In the meantime, Russia has mobilized hundreds of thousands of reservists in an attempt to resuscitate its war effort.

On Tuesday, the city council of Kyiv said it was providing evacuation centres with potassium iodide pills in preparation for a possible nuclear attack on the capital. Such pills can help block the absorption of harmful radiation by the thyroid gland if taken just before or immediately after exposure to nuclear radiation. The city council said in a statement that the pills will be distributed to residents in areas contaminated by nuclear radiation if there is a need to evacuate.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address that the Ukrainian army’s movement in the south of the country has been “quite fast and powerful.” He said dozens of settlements have been liberated in the regions Russia said it had annexed. “Our soldiers do not stop. And it’s only a matter of time before we expel the occupier from all of our land,” he added.

Mykola Bielieskov, a senior analyst at Come Back Alive, a foundation that provides training and equipment assistance to the Ukrainian military, said he believes the major reason Russian troops are suffering terribly on two fronts is that they lack adequate manpower. “For the first time we see real progress, Ukrainians moving in different directions,” he said.

But Moscow’s mobilization plans are no guarantee that Russia will hold its front line, he said, because the arriving troops still lack equipment, training and logistical support. “It’s just prolonging the agony, just prolonging the strategic agony of Russia in the territory of Ukraine.”

Mr. Bielieskov said he believes Russia’s mobilization announcement and nuclear threats are intended partly to influence Western countries and affect their readiness to support Ukraine. “But I don’t think it would be successful, because as we see, Ukrainians are continuing to push Russian forces despite this nuclear blackmail,” he said.

Ukrainian forces in the south destroyed 31 Russian tanks and one multiple rocket launcher, the military’s southern operational command said in an overnight update. Ukrainian video footage showed the country’s soldiers removing a Russian flag from a power pylon in Novopetrivka, a newly recaptured village in Kherson. They wiped their feet on it and lit it on fire. Then they raised a Ukrainian flag.

Though Ukraine has not disclosed much information about its troops’ advances, there have been reports coming out of some of the occupied areas.

Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-installed leader of the occupied parts of Kherson, told Russian state television that Ukrainian troops had recaptured the southern town of Dudchany, along the west bank of the Dnipro River. The town is about 30 kilometres south of where the front lines were before Monday’s breakthrough, meaning Ukraine’s southern advance has been the fastest of the war so far.

A separate Russian-installed official in Kherson, Kirill Stremousov, was cited by the Russian state-owned RIA news agency on Tuesday as saying the Ukrainian advance had been halted at Dudchany by air strikes and artillery.

In the east, the Russian-installed leader in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, said Russian forces were building a serious line of defence around the city of Kreminna after being pushed back.

Mr. Zelensky formally released a decree on Tuesday declaring any talks with Mr. Putin “impossible,” while leaving the door open to discussions with Russia if the country were under new leadership.

The decree says holding negotiations with Mr. Putin became impossible after his decision to annex the four regions of Ukraine. The Kremlin said what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine would not end if Kyiv ruled out talks.

With reports from Reuters and the Associated Press

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