Vladimir Putin has signed laws absorbing four Ukrainian regions into Russia, finalising the annexation of the occupied territories in defiance of international outcry.

It follows the so-called referenda in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, rejected as a sham by Ukraine and the West.

The areas being annexed are not even under full control of Russian forces.

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Together with Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, President Putin’s total claim amounts to more than 22% of Ukrainian territory, though the exact borders of the four regions he is annexing are still yet to be finally clarified.

The move comes despite Ukrainian troops making “rapid, powerful” advances in the south and east of the country and liberating “dozens” of settlements over the past week – according to Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Defence forces have continued to make significant gains in Kherson Oblast while simultaneously continuing advances in Kharkiv and Luhansk Oblast.

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On the battlefield on Wednesday morning, multiple explosions rocked Bila Tserkva, setting off fires at what was described as infrastructure facilities in the city to the south of the capital Kyiv, regional leader Oleksiy Kuleba said on Telegram.

Early indications are that the city was attacked by so-called “kamikaze” or suicide drones, he said.

Bila Tserkva is about 50 miles south of Kyiv.

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In his nightly video address on Tuesday, President Zelenskyy said: “The Ukrainian army is advancing in quite a rapid and powerful manner in the south of the country within the context of the current defence operation.

“This week alone, since the Russian pseudo-referendum, dozens of population centres have been liberated.

“These are in Kherson, Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk regions altogether.”

Meanwhile, EU member countries have agreed on another round of sanctions against Russia over its aggression against Ukraine, the Czech EU presidency said on Wednesday.

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Recaptured Ukrainian town ‘left in tatters’

Also, a senior US expert has told Sky News that President Putin’s mounting problems in Ukraine make Russia’s use of a tactical nuclear weapon more likely.

John Bolton, a former US national security adviser and ambassador to the United Nations, said that the Russian president is in “greater trouble than at any point since the invasion”.