Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday annexed four parts of Ukraine occupied by his army, staging a grand ceremony in Moscow as Kyiv vowed to battle on and pushed for expedited NATO membership.
The event at the Kremlin — a turning point in post-Soviet history — came hours after shelling killed 30 people in Ukraine’s southern region of Zaporizhzhia in one of the worst attacks against civilians in months.
Putin was defiant during his address to Russia’s political elite, telling the West that the internationally condemned manoeuvre was irreversible and urging Ukraine’s emboldened army to negotiate a surrender.
“I want to say this to the Kyiv regime and its masters in the West: People living in Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are becoming our citizens forever,” Putin said.
“We call on the Kyiv regime to immediately stop fighting and stop all hostilities… and return to the negotiating table,” the Russian leader added.
The packed hall erupted into chants of “Russia! Russia” after the four leaders inked the deal.
Putin — rarely seen making physical contact since the pandemic — joined hands with his proxy leaders and they shouted along in unison on state TV.
Washington announced “severe” new sanctions against Russian officials and the country’s defence industry, and said G7 allies support imposing “costs” on any nation that backs the annexation.
President Volodymyr Zelensky immediately urged the US-led military alliance NATO to grant Ukraine fast-track membership, a move Kyiv had threatened earlier.
– Biden says Putin ‘struggling’ –
The Ukrainian leader doubled down in an address to the nation, vowing never to hold talks with Russia so long as Putin was in power.
“We will negotiate with the new president,” Zelensky said.
US President Joe Biden condemned Friday’s ceremony in Moscow as a “sham routine” that Putin put on to show strength, but instead demonstrated that “he’s struggling,” and vowed to continue backing Kyiv.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg slammed the annexation as “illegal and illegitimate” but remained non-committal after Ukraine said it was applying to join the Western alliance.
The United States and Canada voiced support for Ukraine’s membership but steered clear of promises to fast-track it.
Despite warnings from Putin prior to the annexation that he could use nuclear weapons to defend the captured territories, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Kyiv would “continue liberating our land and our people”.
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Friday that Washington would announce an “immediate” new weapons shipment for Kyiv next week.
Sullivan also said that while there is a “risk” of Putin using nuclear weapons, there is no indication that he would do so imminently.
Hours ahead of the annexation ceremony, an attack in Zaporizhzhia in the south killed at least 30 people and wounded dozens as civilians were preparing to leave to pick up relatives, Ukrainian officials said.
Bodies clothed in civilian wear were strewn across the ground after the attack and windows of cars blown out.
One man, 56-year-old Viktor, said his life was saved because he went to get a coffee.
“The waitress gave it to me. And there was a bang. She got scared and left the cafe. A few minutes later, there was another explosion. Now she is on the floor,” he said.
“I managed to hide. She did not.”
– Land corridor –
In central Moscow, at least 10,000 people convened for state-organised annexation celebrations, with huge banners emblazoned: “Donetsk. Lugansk. Zaporizhzhia. Kherson. Russia!”
“I’m happy if they want to join Russia,” Natalya Bodner, a 37-year-old lawyer told AFP. “They have more hope than we do”.
The four territories create a crucial land corridor between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Moscow in 2014.
Together, all five regions including Crimea, make up around 20 percent of Ukraine, whose forces in recent weeks have been clawing back territory.
Zelensky on Friday hailed the “significant results” from Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the east.
Ukrainian forces were on the doorstep of Lyman in Donetsk, which Moscow’s forces pummelled for weeks to capture this summer.
“Lyman is partially surrounded,” said Denis Pushilin, the pro-Moscow leader in the breakaway region of Donetsk, on social media adding later that Russian forces were holding out “with the last of their strength”.
The four regions’ Kremlin-installed leaders formally requested annexation after claiming residents backed the move in hastily organised referendums that were dismissed by Kyiv and the West as fraudulent.
Russia on Friday vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the annexation of the regions, while China abstained.