Kyiv, Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed deals to annex parts of Ukraine in defiance of international law, vowing to protect the newly incorporated regions by “all available means” in a further escalation of his seven-month invasion of the country.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy replied that his country was submitting an “accelerated” application to join the NATO military alliance.
Putin called on Ukraine to sit down for peace talks but immediately insisted he would not discuss returning occupied territories – keeping him on a collision course with the Ukrainian government and its Western backers, who have opposed his land grab.
At a Kremlin ceremony in the magnificent St George’s Hall to announce the annexation of occupied parts of Ukraine, Putin accused the West of fueling hostilities as part of what he said was a plan to turn Russia into a ” colony” and a “colony” to transform. Masses of slaves.” The hardening of his position in the conflict that has killed and wounded tens of thousands has further fueled tensions, already to levels not seen since the Cold War.
The European Union immediately responded to Putin’s latest move with a joint statement rejecting and condemning the “illegal annexation” of the four regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia.
The EU’s 27 member states said they would never recognize the illegal referendums Russia organized “as a pretext for this further violation of Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
Ukraine vowed to keep fighting, and Zelenskyy announced the “accelerated” NATO bid, although it wasn’t immediately clear what that would mean, as it requires the unanimous support of the alliance’s members.
“In fact, we have already demonstrated compatibility with alliance standards. They are real to Ukraine – real on the battlefield and in all aspects of our interaction,” Zelenskyy said. “We trust each other, we help each other and we protect each other. This is the Alliance.”
The Kremlin ceremony came three days after the conclusion of Moscow-orchestrated “referendums” on joining Russia in the occupied territories, which were dismissed by Kyiv and the West as a shameless gun-point land-grabbing and based on lies.
But Putin, in a fiery speech at the ceremony, insisted Ukraine must treat the Kremlin-managed polls “with respect.”
After the ceremonial signing of Russia’s accession treaties, the Moscow-installed leaders of the occupied territories gathered around Putin and linked hands before joining in the chants of “Russia! Russia!” snapped in. with the audience.
Putin also railed against the West, cutting an angry figure when he accused the United States and its allies of destroying Russia. He said the West acted “as a parasite” and used its financial and technological strength “to rob the whole world”.
He portrayed Russia as on a historic mission to reclaim its post-Soviet great power status and counter Western hegemony, which he said was collapsing.
“History has called us to a battlefield to fight for our people, for great historical Russia and for future generations,” he said.
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 Zaporizhia were captured by Russia shortly after Putin dispatched troops to Ukraine on February 24.
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.
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 – threats that Moscow can back up with the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear warheads.
The Kremlin-organized referendums in Ukraine were an attempt by Putin to avoid further defeats on the battlefield that could jeopardize his 22-year rule. By at least putting Russia’s achievements on paper, Putin apparently hopes to scare Ukraine and its Western backers with the prospect of an increasingly escalating conflict if they don’t back down – which they don’t.
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.
The push for annexation comes with the Kremlin on the brink of another stinging loss on the battlefield, with reports of the impending Ukrainian encirclement of the eastern city of Lyman.
A recapture could pave the way for Ukraine to penetrate deep into Luhansk, one of the regions Russia is absorbing.
“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 is advancing and who is retreating. In this respect, the Kremlin cannot give the Russians any consolation.”
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.
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.
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 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.
Zelenskyy held an emergency meeting of his National Security and Defense Council on Friday and denounced the recent Russian attacks.
“The enemy rages and seeks revenge for our steadfastness and failure,” he posted on his Telegram channel. “They will definitely answer. For every Ukrainian life lost!”
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.”
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