Amid patriotic pageantry hyped up by the fervor of war, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday proclaimed the annexation of four Ukrainian regions, a flagrant violation of international law that stands to escalate and prolong the military conflict in Ukraine, sharpen Moscow’s confrontation with the West and add to the Kremlin’s growing global isolation.
At a ceremony in the gilded Grand Kremlin Palace, attended by senior political and military officials, members of parliament and even Russian war bloggers, Putin on Friday signed so-called accession treaties to absorb the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
Patriotic music played ahead of the signing ritual, in which Putin sat at one white gold-trimmed desk and four proxy leaders of the occupied regions sat at another. Once the documents were signed, Putin and the four proxy leaders held hands and chanted, “Russia! Russia! Russia!” to cheers and applause from the audience.
The annexation move, while already rejected by President Biden, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and other world leaders as unlawful and illegitimate, nonetheless laid Russia’s claim to some 40,000 square miles of land, or about one-seventh of all Ukrainian territory.
It was a momentous and remarkably brazen step — a land grab with virtually no parallel in modern times — and one with potentially dangerous consequences. Russia has warned that it would respond to any attacks on the seized Ukrainian territories as if they were Russia proper, potentially even with nuclear weapons.
The attempted seizure of territory, which Russian forces do not fully control either militarily or politically, also appeared to commit the country to a prolonged war. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has pledged to fight until all of his country’s territory, including Crimea, is reclaimed, and Western allies have promised to send additional weapons and financial aid to support Kyiv in repelling the invaders.
In a pointed jab at the Kremlin leader, Zelensky announced on Friday that Ukraine was formally applying for “accelerated accession” into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “De facto, we have already made our way to NATO,” Zelensky said in a post on Telegram. “De facto, we have already proven compatibility with alliance standards.”
It was a largely symbolic statement, however. Under NATO’s collective defense clause, admitting Ukraine would immediately require the alliance to send troops to fight Russia, making Kyiv’s membership bid a political and practical impossibility.
Putin’s rapid push toward annexation followed a series of military setbacks, including a failed attempt to seize Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, and topple the government last spring, and a rout of Russian forces from the northeast Kharkiv region during a lightning offensive by Ukrainian troops last month.
The losses in Kharkiv prompted Putin, under pressure from pro-war hawks, to declare a partial military mobilization, intended to call up hundreds of thousands of reservists. But the mobilization proved yet another debacle as protests erupted across Russia, with military recruitment offices coming under attack, and as hundreds of thousands of fighting-age men began fleeing the country to avoid conscription.
Putin signed the documents surrounded by members of the Russian parliament who overwhelmingly supported Putin’s invasion and adopted draconian laws to punish critics of the war, and who were due to ratify the annexation in votes early next week. In a speech, Putin insisted that staged referendums carried out over the last week in the occupied regions had demonstrated legitimate support for annexation.
“This is the will of millions of people,” Putin said. “The choice was made, and Russia will not betray this choice.”
Many residents of the regions reported being forced at gunpoint to participate in the referendums.
Countries that traditionally maintain closer ties to Russia, like Serbia and Turkey, have also criticized the referendums, underscoring their commitment to Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty — and their own.
Guterres, in a statement at U.N. headquarters on Thursday, blasted the annexation plan as a stunning violation of the U.N.’s core principles by a country that holds a permanent seat on the Security Council. “Any annexation of a state’s territory by another state resulting from the threat or use of force is a violation of the principles of the U.N. charter and international law,” Guterres said.
The annexation move effectively slams the door on any diplomatic resolution to the war in Ukraine, and military analysts are warning of a protracted, increasingly deadly conflict.
Putin’s claim of territory that Russia does not yet control presents numerous challenges for the Kremlin, and those were already apparent on Friday even before the president gave his speech.
Asked by reporters to specify the boundaries of the annexed regions, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov conceded that he did not know, particularly in the case of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. But he insisted that Russia would fight to liberate all of Donetsk and Luhansk.
“As for the territories of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, I need to clarify this,” Peskov said. “I cannot answer.” Pressed on the portions of Donetsk that remain under Ukrainian control, Peskov replied: “It is to be liberated.”
In his speech ahead of signing the documents, Putin reiterated many long-standing gripes against the West, particularly the United States, which he castigated as the only nation to ever use nuclear weapons.
“The Western world’s order is not free,” Putin said. “It is hypocritical and full of lies.”
“The collapse of Western hegemony that has begun is irreversible,” Putin said. “And I repeat again — nothing will be the same as before. Fate and history called us onto the battlefield for our people, for great historical Russia!”
“The West continues to look for ways to hit Russia, weaken and destroy us,” the Russian leader said. “This is something they have always wanted to do: pit peoples against each other, doom them for poverty and extinction. They just can’t bear the fact that there is such a great, big country with its territory, natural resources and people who will never live according to someone else’s orders.”
The elaborate signing ceremony took place in the marbled St. George Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace, adorned by twisted columns, ornate golden chandeliers and plaques listing hundreds of regiments that participated in Russia’s historical military conquests.
So far, however, the war in Ukraine will hardly go down as anything approaching a heroic achievement.
The seven-month-long war has been marked by horrific destruction, millions of refugees fleeing the war-torn areas, thousands of civilian deaths, and allegations of war crimes against Russian troops.
In that sense, Putin’s attempted annexation of the four regions differs sharply from Crimea, where a staged referendum was held but there were no injuries to civilians or widespread destruction of cities.
Now, Russia faces the inherent contradiction of claiming that many thousands of residents from cities like Mariupol that were heavily bombed with huge numbers of civilian casualties are suddenly Russian citizens who can expect to be protected by Moscow.
On Friday, a missile strike, apparently carried out by Russia, hit a civilian convoy in Zaporizhzhia and killed at least 25 people who were going to deliver aid to residents of Russian-occupied areas.
Later Friday, Moscow staged a concert on Red Square to celebrate Putin’s decision to bring “historic Russian lands” home. Independent Russian news outlets reported that many of the thousands in attendance were bused in from nearby towns and the crowd consisted mainly of students, teachers and other public workers pressured to show up.
The concert featured patriotic songs, fiery speeches from hawkish propagandists calling for a “holy war” in Ukraine and even a knockoff of a popular TikTok sea shanty with the lyrics changed to praise the accession of the eastern Ukrainian territories known as Donbas.
Putin made a short appearance, shouting from the stage: “We have become stronger because we are together! Truth is behind us, and in truth there is strength, which means victory. Victory will be ours!”
Dampening Putin’s Friday celebration of annexation were new military setbacks Russian forces suffered around the eastern city of Lyman. The occupied city was “semi-encircled” by Ukrainian forces on Friday, according to the pro-Kremlin leader in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin.
Ukrainian forces “are going all out to overshadow this historical event,” Pushilin said on Telegram. “Very unpleasant news, but we must look soberly at the situation and draw conclusions from our mistakes.” If Russia loses Lyman, a critical logistic route, the Ukrainian army could seize the moment to break through into Luhansk, another potentially embarrassing setback for Moscow.
Isabelle Khurshudyan in Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.
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