Kremlin set to annex parts of Ukraine

At the start of the event, Putin urged Ukraine to sit down for talks but warned that Moscow would not abandon the newly incorporated regions.

MOSCOW, Russia — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed deals to annex Ukraine’s occupied territories and said he would use “all available means” to protect the territory that Ukrainian and Western officials said Russia was unlawfully claiming and in violation of international law.

In a speech before the treaty signing ceremony, Putin called on Ukraine to hold talks to end seven months of fighting that began when he ordered his troops to invade the neighboring country. But he warned that Russia will never give up the absorbed territories and will protect them as part of its sovereignty.

The ceremony came three days after the conclusion of Kremlin-orchestrated “referendums” on joining Russia, which Kyiv and the West dismissed as a shameless land grab at gunpoint and based on lies.

Putin said Ukrainian authorities should “treat with respect” the unilateral results of the Moscow-led referendum and warned Russia would never relinquish control of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia regions.

Both houses of the Kremlin-controlled Russian parliament will meet next week to approve the treaties allowing the regions to join Russia and send them to Putin for approval.

Ukrainian officials dismissed Putin’s remarks, saying Ukraine’s future would be decided on Ukraine’s battlefields.

“We continue to work and liberate the Ukrainian territories. And we don’t pay attention to those whose time has come to take pills,” said Andrii Yermak, head of the Ukrainian President’s Office. “The army is working, Ukraine is united. Only forward.”

The event in the Kremlin’s opulent white-and-gold St. George Hall was organized for Putin and the heads of Ukraine’s four regions to sign treaties for the territories’ accession to Russia, in a sharp escalation of the seven-month conflict.

The separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine have been backed by Moscow since declaring independence in 2014, weeks after Ukraine’s annexation of Crimea. The southern Kherson region and part of neighboring Zaporizhzhia were captured by Russia shortly after Putin dispatched troops to Ukraine on February 24.

Putin and his lieutenants have bluntly warned Ukraine against launching an offensive to retake the regions, saying Russia would view it as an act of aggression against its sovereign territory and would not hesitate to use “all available means” in retaliation, an indication on Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

The Kremlin-organized referendums in Ukraine and the nuclear warning are an attempt by Putin to avoid further defeats in Ukraine that could jeopardize his 22-year rule.

Russia controls most of the Luhansk and Kherson regions, about 60% of the Donetsk region and a large part of the Zaporizhia region, where it took control of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.

Asked about Russia’s plans, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was aiming at least for the “liberation” of the entire Donetsk region.

As it prepared to celebrate the incorporation of the occupied Ukrainian territories, the Kremlin was on the verge of another painful loss on the battlefield, with reports of the imminent Ukrainian encirclement of the eastern city of Lyman.

The recapture could pave the way for Ukraine to advance deep into one of the regions Russia is absorbing, a move widely condemned as illegal and ushering in a dangerous new phase in the seven-month war.

Russia also bombed Ukrainian cities with rockets, rockets and suicide drones on Friday, with one attack reportedly killing 25 people. The salvos combined were the heaviest barrage Russia has unleashed in weeks.

They followed analysts’ warnings that Putin was likely to draw more on his dwindling inventory of precision weapons and step up attacks to escalate the war to a degree that would shake Western support for Ukraine.

The Kremlin preceded its planned annexation ceremonies on Friday with another warning to Ukraine that it should not fight to retake the four regions. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow would view a Ukrainian attack on the captured territory as an act of aggression against Russia itself.

The annexations are Russia’s attempt to at least put its achievements on paper and terrify Ukraine and its Western backers into fears of an increasingly escalating conflict if they don’t back down – which they show no sign of doing. The Kremlin paved the way for the land grab with “referendums,” sometimes at gunpoint, which Ukraine and Western powers widely dismissed as rigged hypocrisy.

“It looks pretty pathetic. Ukrainians are doing something, taking steps in the real material world, while the Kremlin is building a kind of virtual reality that is unable to react in the real world,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter and now a political analyst.

“People understand that politics is now on the battlefield,” he added. “It is important who advances and who retreats. In that sense, the Kremlin has nothing to offer Russians comfort.”

A Ukrainian counter-offensive has taken control of the military battlefields from Moscow. Their hold in the Luhansk region appears to be becoming increasingly shaky as Ukrainian forces invade there with the pincer attack on Lyman. Ukraine also has a major foothold in the neighboring Donetsk region.

Luhansk and Donetsk — which has been wracked by fighting since the separatists declared independence in 2014 — make up the larger Donbass region in eastern Ukraine that Putin has long promised but has so far refused to make fully Russian. Peskov said both Donetsk and Luhansk will be fully incorporated into Russia on Friday.

All of Kherson and parts of Zaporizhia, two other regions prepared for annexation, were reoccupied in the opening phase of the invasion. It is unclear whether the Kremlin will declare the entire occupied territory as Russia or only part of it. Peskov would not say so in a conversation with reporters on Friday.

In the capital of the Zaporizhia region on Friday, anti-aircraft missiles, which Russia had repurposed as ground attack weapons, rained down on people waiting in cars waiting to cross Russian-held territory so they could bring family members back across the front lines, according to the deputy head of Ukraine’s Presidential Office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, said.

According to the Attorney General’s Office, 25 people were killed and 50 injured. The attack left deep craters and threw shrapnel through the humanitarian convoy’s lined-up vehicles, killing their passengers. Outbuildings were demolished. Garbage bags, blankets and, in the case of one victim, a blood-soaked towel were used to cover the bodies.

Russian-installed officials in Zaporizhia blamed Ukrainian forces for the strike but did not provide any evidence.

Russian strikes were also reported in the city of Dnipro. Regional governor Valentyn Reznichenko said at least one person was killed and five others injured.

Ukraine’s Air Force said the southern cities of Mykolaiv and Odessa were also attacked with Iran-supplied suicide drones, which Russia has increasingly used in recent weeks, apparently to avoid losing more pilots who have no control over Ukrainian skies.

Putin was due to make a major speech at the ceremony of incorporation of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhia into Russia. The Kremlin planned for the region’s pro-Moscow administrators to sign the annexation treaties in the ornate St. George’s Hall of the palace in Moscow, which is Putin’s seat of power.

Putin also issued decrees recognizing the supposed independence of the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions, steps he had previously taken in February for Luhansk and Donetsk and earlier Crimea, seized from Ukraine in 2014.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called an emergency meeting of his National Security and Defense Council and condemned the recent Russian attacks.

“The enemy is raging and seeking revenge for our steadfastness and failure,” he posted on his Telegram channel. “They will definitely answer. For every Ukrainian life lost!”

The US and its allies have promised even more sanctions against Russia and billions of dollars in extra support for Ukraine as the Kremlin duplicates the annexation book used for Crimea.

With Ukraine vowing to retake all occupied territories and Russia pledging to defend its gains, threatening to use nuclear weapons and mobilizing another 300,000 troops despite protests, the two nations are on an increasingly escalating collision course.

This was underscored by the fighting for Lyman, a key hub for Russian military operations in Donbass and a coveted prize in Ukraine’s counter-offensive launched in late August.

Russian-backed Donetsk separatist leader Denis Pushilin said the city is now “half encircled” by Ukrainian forces. In comments to the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, he described the setback as “worrying news”.

“The armed formations of Ukraine,” he said, “are trying very hard to spoil our celebration.” Kremlin set to annex parts of Ukraine

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