Vladimir Putin has signed “accession treaties” formalizing Russia’s illegal annexation of four occupied regions in Ukraine, marking the largest forced takeover of territory in Europe since World War II.
The signing ceremony, which was held in violation of international law, took place at the Grand Kremlin Palace in the presence of the country’s political elites, and comes on the heels of Kremlin-orchestrated fake referendums in Ukraine’s four regions – Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk.
Putin kicked off the ceremony with a lengthy, combative and angry speech in which the Russian leader expressed new nuclear threats and pledged to “protect” the newly annexed countries “with all the strength and means at our disposal”.
“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 afterwards, Putin signed the “accession treaties” on a podium next to the heads of the four regions installed in Russia.
After the signing of the treaties, the leaders gathered around Putin, joined hands and chanted together “Russia! Russia!” with the applauding audience.
Putin’s fraught speech, in which he railed against a “satanic” West, has been described by observers as his most anti-Western speech yet.
In a firm rebuttal to Putin’s ceremony in Moscow, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, announced in a video address in Kiev that his country was formally applying for accelerated membership of the NATO alliance. while Putin was president.
Hours earlier, Russian forces launched a rocket attack on people sitting in cars in the city of Zaporizhzhya waiting to cross the Russian-occupied territory so they could bring relatives back across the front lines, killing dozens.
Ukraine has indicated that it will fight to reclaim all of its land, while Western allies have previously said they would never recognize Russia’s claims to Ukraine’s territory. UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on Thursday evening that the annexation “has no legal value and deserves to be condemned”.
On Friday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the annexation declaration “will not change anything”.
“All areas 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 Russia’s central bank governor Elvira Nabiullina, a longtime trusted adviser to the president.
Putin’s decision to sign treaties annexing territories, some of which Russia does not fully control, is a major escalation of Russia’s seven-month-old war and will likely close the door to diplomacy for years to come. All told, Russia annexes at least 40,000 square miles of eastern and southern Ukraine, about 15% of Ukraine’s total area, equal to the size of Portugal or Serbia.
Putin has repeatedly said that he is ready to defend the areas by any means available, indicating that he would be willing to resort to a nuclear attack to avert Ukraine’s efforts to liberate his sovereign country.
In a thinly disguised threat, he said Friday that the US had set a “precedent” by using nuclear weapons against Japan at the end of World War II.
On Friday evening, a pop concert will be held in Moscow on Red Square, where a stage has been built with giant electronic billboards that read “Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson – Russia!”
It was not immediately clear whether Putin would attend the concert, as he did a similar event in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea.
Putin’s annexations are widely seen as a response to mounting military difficulties on the battlefield. Earlier this month, Ukraine expelled Russian troops from the Kharkiv region and captured areas taken by Moscow on the first day of the invasion.
Russia now faces another major military defeat, with thousands of its troops surrounded in Lyman, a strategically important stronghold in northern Donetsk province, one of four regions that Putin has declared part of Russia.
Oleg Tsaryov, a Ukrainian-born pro-Russian politician, wrote on social media: “The situation is very difficult in Lyman. Our boys may be completely surrounded by tonight. The situation in Lyman is a bad backdrop for a celebration.”
In an effort to slow Ukraine’s offensive, Russia last week announced the first public mobilization since World War II, triggering a border flight by tens of thousands of combat-age men and another, possibly unprecedented, brain drain. Pro-Russian officials in the occupied Donetsk region on Friday said the first newly mobilized soldiers have arrived in eastern Ukraine.
Putin’s decision to annex territories while mobilizing hundreds of thousands of Russians at home indicates that he is further raising the stakes in the war, said Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst and founder of R.Politik.
“The way Putin talks about Ukraine is clear that this is an existential problem for him. For him, if Russia doesn’t win in Ukraine, there will be no Russia,” Stanovaya said. “Russia is showing that it is willing to use all the means at its disposal to achieve its strategic goals. Including nuclear weapons.”
Putin previously warned he was not bluffing when he said Russia was willing to use nuclear weapons if Ukraine continues its offensive operations on newly annexed Russian territory. While some politicians and nuclear weapons experts have dismissed the idea that Putin was willing to break the nuclear taboo, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Putin’s nuclear warnings are “a matter we must take deadly seriously.”