"We do not, we never did and are not going to make any difference between Russians and Ukrainians", said President Vladimir Putin.
President Vladimir Putin has said that Russia will stabilise the situation in four Ukrainian regions it has claimed as its own territory, even as Russian troops have been fleeing the front lines in those areas.
His comments are being interpreted as an indirect acknowledgment of the problems faced by Moscow as it tries to assert its control.
"We proceed from the fact that the situation will be stabilised, we will be able to calmly develop these territories," the Russian leader said.
Putin signed constitutional decrees on Wednesday to formally absorb the four Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia into Russia.
According to documents released by the Kremlin, the four regions are now a "new constituent Entity of the Russian Federation".
During a video conference, Putin said Russia remains determined to fulfil its aims.
"We have three million Russian citizens of Ukrainian origin. We do not, we never did and are not going to make any difference between Russians and Ukrainians", Putin said. "But going our own way — and I believe that this path is creative — without any doubt, we will cut off everything that prevents us from moving forward".
Russia does not fully control any of the four regions. In two of them, it has yet to define the boundaries of the territory it claims. Its forces have suffered significant losses there since Friday, when Putin signed treaties to incorporate them into Russia after what it called referendums.
Ukraine and the West denounced the exercises as coercive and illegal and the international community has refused to recognise them.
On Wednesday morning, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared he had nullified all Russian attempts at annexation.
"I signed a decree designating null and void all decrees of the president of the Russian Federation and all acts adopted to implement these decrees for attempted annexation of our territory from 2014 until today. Any Russian decisions, any treaties with which they try to seize our land - all this is worthless", Ukraine's leader declared.
Kyiv's counter-offensive gains
On the ground, Ukraine's counter-offensive is pushing on. The governor of Luhansk, Serhiy Haidai, said that Ukrainian forces are already starting to "de-occupy" regions that Moscow now claims are its own.
"It can be officially said that the 'de-occupation' of the Luhansk region has started. Already several settlements have been liberated from the Russian army, from the Russian occupiers", said Haidai.
"All those [Russian] soldiers understand that they cannot avoid the counter offensive, they understand that they are defeated and therefore the only thing that they try to do now is to mine everything possible, all roads, all buildings".
Speaking at an award ceremony for teachers, Putin also said he had great respect for the Ukrainian people.
"We always, and even today despite the current tragedy, hold great respect for the Ukrainian people, Ukrainian culture, language, literature and so on," he said.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions of Ukrainians have fled their homes and their country since Putin ordered Russia's invasion on February 24.