By Jon Gambrell and Hanna Arhirova, AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed treaties Friday to annex parts of Ukraine in defiance of international law, vowing to protect the newly incorporated regions by “all available means” in another escalation of his seven-month invasion of the country.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy responded by saying his country is submitting an “accelerated” application to join the NATO military alliance.
Putin urged Ukraine to sit down for peace talks but immediately insisted he won’t discuss handing back occupied regions — keeping him on a collision course with the Ukrainian government and its Western backers that have rejected his land-grab.
In a Kremlin ceremony at the ornate St. George’s Hall to herald the annexation of the occupied parts of Ukraine, Putin accused the West of fueling the hostilities as part of what he said is a plan to turn Russia into a “colony” and a “crowds of slaves.” The hardening of his position, in the conflict that that has killed and wounded tens of thousands of people, further cranked up tensions, already at levels unseen since the Cold War.
The European Union immediately responded to Putin’s latest step with a joint statement rejecting and condemning “the illegal annexation” of the four regions: Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
The EU’s 27 member states said they will never recognize the illegal referendums that Russia organized “as a pretext for this further violation of Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Ukraine vowed to continue fighting, and Zelenskyy announced the “accelerated” NATO application, although it wasn’t immediately clear what that would mean, since it requires the unanimous support of the alliance’s members.
“De facto, we have already proven compatibility with alliance standards. They are real for 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 completion in occupied regions of Moscow-orchestrated “referendums” on joining Russia that were dismissed by Kyiv and the West as a bare-faced land grab held at gunpoint and based on lies.
But Putin, in a fiery speech at the ceremony, insisted that Ukraine must treat the Kremlin-managed votes “with respect.”
After the signing ceremony of treaties to join Russia, Moscow-installed leaders of the occupied regions gathered around Putin and they all linked hands, before then joining chants of “Russia! Russia!” with the audience.
Putin also railed at the West, cutting an angry figure as he accused the United States and its allies of seeking to destroy Russia. He said the West acted “as a parasite” and used its financial and technological strength “to rob the entire world.”
He portrayed Russia as being on a historical mission to reclaim its post-Soviet great power status and counter Western domination that he said is collapsing.
“History has called us to a battlefield to fight for our people, for the grand historic Russia, for future generations,” he said.
The separatist Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine have been backed by Moscow since declaring independence in 2014, weeks after the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. The southern Kherson region and part of neighboring Zaporizhzhia were captured by Russia soon after Putin sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Both houses of the Kremlin-controlled Russian parliament will meet next week to rubber-stamp the treaties for the regions to join Russia, sending them to Putin for his approval.
Putin and his lieutenants have bluntly warned Ukraine against pressing an offensive to reclaim 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 votes in Ukraine were an attempt by Putin to avoid more defeats on the battlefields that could threaten his 22-year rule. By setting Russia’s gains in stone, at least on paper, Putin seemingly hopes to scare Ukraine and its Western backers with the prospect of an increasingly escalatory conflict unless they back down — which they show no signs of doing.
Russia controls most of the Luhansk and Kherson regions, about 60% of the Donetsk region and a large chunk of the Zaporizhzhia region where it took control of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.
The push forward with annexation comes with the Kremlin on the verge of another stinging battlefield loss, with reports of the imminent Ukrainian encirclement of the eastern city of Lyman.
Retaking it could open the path for Ukraine to push deep into Luhansk, one of the regions Russia is absorbing.
“It looks quite pathetic. Ukrainians are doing something, taking steps in the real material world, while the Kremlin is building some kind of a virtual reality, incapable of responding in the real world,” former Kremlin speechwriter turned political analyst Abbas Gallyamov said.
“People understand that the politics is now on the battlefield,” he added. “What’s important is who advances and who retreats. In that sense, the Kremlin cannot offer anything сomforting to the Russians.”
Russia on Friday also pounded Ukrainian cities with missiles, rockets and suicide drones, with one strike reported to have killed 25 people. The salvos together amounted to the heaviest barrage that Russia has unleashed for weeks.
They followed analysts’ warnings that Putin was likely to dip more heavily into his dwindling stocks of precision weapons and step up attacks as part of a strategy to escalate the war to an extent that would shatter Western support for Ukraine.
A Ukrainian counteroffensive has deprived Moscow of mastery on the military fields of battle. Its hold of the Luhansk region appears increasingly shaky, as Ukrainian forces make inroads there, with the pincer assault on Lyman. Ukraine also still has a large foothold in the neighboring Donetsk region.
In the Zaporizhzhia region’s capital, anti-aircraft missiles that Russia has repurposed as ground-attack weapons rained down Friday on people who were waiting in cars to cross into Russian-occupied territory so they could bring family members back across front lines, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, said.
Russian-installed officials in Zaporizhzhia blamed Ukrainian forces for the strike, but provided no evidence.
Russian strikes were also reported in the city of Dnipro. The regional governor, Valentyn Reznichenko, said at least one person was killed and five were wounded.
Ukraine’s air force said the southern cities of Mykolaiv and Odesa were also targeted with Iranian-supplied suicide drones that Russia has increasingly deployed in recent weeks, seemingly to avoid losing more pilots who don’t have control of Ukraine’s skies.
Zelenskyy held an emergency meeting of his National Security and Defense Council on Friday and denounced the latest Russian strikes.
“The enemy rages and seeks revenge for our steadfastness and his failures,” he posted on his Telegram channel. “You will definitely answer. For every lost Ukrainian life!”
With Ukraine vowing to take back all occupied territory and Russia pledging to defend its gains, threatening nuclear-weapon use and mobilizing an additional 300,000 troops despite protests, the two nations are on an increasingly escalatory collision course.
That was underscored by the fighting for Lyman, a key node for Russian military operations in the Donbas and a sought-after prize in the Ukrainian counteroffensive launched in late August.
The Russian-backed separatist leader of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, said the city is now “half-encircled” by Ukrainian forces. In comments reported by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, he described the setback as “worrying news.”
”Ukraine’s armed formations,” he said, “are trying very hard to spoil our celebration,”