Vladimir Putin has signed “accession treaties” formalizing Russia’s illegal annexation of four occupied regions of Ukraine, marking the largest forcible takeover of territory in Europe since World War II.
The signing ceremony, held in defiance of international law, took place at the Grand Kremlin Palace in the presence of the country’s political elites, and follows bogus referendums orchestrated by the Kremlin in all four Ukrainian regions – Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk.
Putin kicked off the ceremony with a long, combative and angry speech in which the Russian leader made new nuclear threats, promising to “protect” the newly annexed lands “with all the forces and means at our disposal”.
“The people have made their choice. An unequivocal choice… This is the will of millions of people,” Putin said, adding that the citizens of the four occupied regions will be part of Russia “forever”.
Shortly after, Putin signed the “accession treaties” on a podium alongside Russian-installed leaders from the four regions.
After signing the treaties, the leaders gathered around Putin, shaking hands and joining in chants of “Russia! Russia!” with the audience applauding.
Putin’s charged speech, in which he railed against a “satanic” West, was described by observers as his most anti-Western speech to date.
In a strong rebuttal to Putin’s ceremony in Moscow, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced in a video address in Kyiv that his country was officially applying for accelerated membership of the NATO alliance, adding that Ukraine wouldn’t hold any peace talks with Russia for as long as Putin was president.
Hours earlier, Russian forces had launched a missile attack on people waiting in cars in the city of Zaporizhzhia to cross into Russian-occupied territory so they could bring family members back across the front lines, killing dozens of people.
Ukraine has indicated it will fight to reclaim all of its land, while Western allies have previously said they will never recognize Russia’s claims to Ukrainian territory. On Thursday evening, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the annexation “has no legal value and deserves to be condemned”.
On Friday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the annexation declaration “won’t change anything”.
“All territories illegally occupied by Russian invaders are Ukrainian lands and will always be part of this sovereign nation,” she added. The UK has introduced sanctions against Russian Central Bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina, a longtime adviser to the president.
Putin’s decision to sign treaties annexing territories, some of which are not fully controlled by Russia, is a major escalation in Russia’s seven-month war and is likely to shut the door on diplomacy for years to come. come. Taken together, Russia is annexing at least 40,000 square miles of eastern and southern Ukraine, or about 15% of Ukraine’s total area, equal to the size of Portugal or Serbia.
Putin has repeatedly said he is ready to defend the territories using all available means, indicating that he would be ready to resort to a nuclear strike in order to avert Ukraine’s efforts to liberate its sovereign territory.
In a thinly veiled threat, he said on Friday that the United States had set a “precedent” by using nuclear weapons against Japan at the end of World War II.
A pop concert will take place in Moscow on Friday evening in Red Square, where a stage has been built with giant electronic billboards proclaiming “Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson – Russia!”
It was not immediately clear whether Putin would attend the concert, as he did at a similar event in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Putin’s annexations are widely seen as a response to growing military difficulties on the battlefield. Earlier this month, Ukraine pushed Russian troops out of the Kharkiv region, reclaiming areas seized by Moscow on the first day of the invasion.
Russia now faces another significant military defeat, with thousands of its troops surrounded in Lyman, a strategically important stronghold in northern Donetsk province, one of four regions Putin has declared part of Russia.
Oleg Tsaryov, a pro-Russian politician of Ukrainian origin, wrote on social media: “The situation is very difficult in Lyman. Our guys may already be completely surrounded tonight. The situation in Lyman is a poor backdrop for a celebration.
In an attempt to slow the Ukrainian offensive, Russia last week announced the first public mobilization since World War II, triggering a border race of tens of thousands of combat-aged men and a further brain drain possibly be unprecedented. Pro-Russian officials in the occupied Donetsk region said the first newly mobilized soldiers arrived in eastern Ukraine on Friday.
Putin’s move to annex territories while mobilizing hundreds of thousands of Russians at home signals he is raising the stakes of the war even further, said Tatiana Stanovaya, political analyst and founder of R.Politik.
“The way Putin talks about Ukraine, it’s clear that for him it’s an existential problem. For him, if Russia does not win in Ukraine, there will be no Russia,” Stanovaya said. “Russia demonstrates that it is ready to use all the means at its disposal to achieve its strategic objectives. Including nuclear weapons.
Putin previously warned he was not bluffing when he said Russia was ready to use nuclear weapons if Ukraine continued offensive operations in newly annexed Russian territory. While some politicians and nuclear weapons experts dismissed the idea that Putin was ready to break the nuclear taboo, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Putin’s nuclear warnings were “a matter which we must take seriously”.