Russian President Vladimir Putin signed treaties Friday to illegally annex more occupied Ukrainian territory in a sharp escalation of his seven-month invasion. Ukraine’s president countered with a surprise application to join the NATO military alliance.
Putin’s land-grab and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s signing of what he said is an “accelerated” NATO membership application sent the two leaders speeding faster on a collision course that is cranking up fears of a full-blown conflict between Russia and the West.
Putin vowed to protect newly annexed regions of Ukraine by “all available means,” a renewed nuclear-backed threat he made at a Kremlin signing ceremony where he also railed furiously against the West, accusing the United States and its allies of seeking Russia’s destruction.
Zelenskyy then held a signing ceremony of his own in Kyiv, releasing video of him putting pen to papers he said were a formal NATO membership request.
Putin has repeatedly made clear that any prospect of Ukraine joining the world’s largest military alliance is one of his red lines and cited it as a justification for his invasion — the biggest land war in Europe since World War II.
In his speech, Putin urged Ukraine to sit down for peace talks but immediately insisted he won’t discuss handing back occupied regions. Zelenskyy said there’d be no negotiations with Putin.
“We are ready for a dialogue with Russia, but … with another president of Russia,” the Ukrainian president said.
In his signing ceremony in the Kremlin’s ornate St. George’s Hall, Putin accused the West of fueling the hostilities as part of what he said is a plan to turn Russia into a “colony” and “crowds of slaves.” The hardening of his position, in the conflict that has killed and wounded tens of thousands of people, cranked up tensions, already at levels unseen since the Cold War.
Western countries responded with an avalanche of condemnation and announcement of more punishment of Russia. The U.S. announced sanctions for more than 1,000 people and firms connected to Russia’s invasion, including its Central Bank governor.
Of Putin’s annexation of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, President Joe Biden said: “Make no mistake: These actions have no legitimacy.”
The European Union rejected and condemned “the illegal annexation.” Its 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.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called it “the largest attempted annexation of European territory by force since the Second World War.” He said the war is at “a pivotal moment,” and that Putin’s decision to annex more territory – Russia now has claimed to have sovereignty over 15% of the country – marks “the most serious escalation since the start of the war.”
Zelenskyy vowed to keep fighting, defying Putin’s warnings that Ukraine shouldn’t try to take back what it has lost.
“The entire territory of our country will be liberated from this enemy,” the Ukrainian leader said. “Russia already knows this. It feels our power.”
The immediate ramifications of the “accelerated” NATO application weren’t clear, because approval requires members’ unanimous support. The supply of Western weapons to Ukraine has, however, already put it closer to the alliance’s orbit.
“De facto, we have already proven compatibility with alliance standards,” Zelenskyy said. “We trust each other, we help each other, and we protect each other.”
Putin’s Kremlin ceremony came three days after the completion in occupied regions of Moscow-orchestrated “referendums” on joining Russia that Kyiv and the West dismissed as a bare-faced land grab held at gunpoint and based on lies.
In his fiery speech at the ceremony, Putin 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, joining chants of “Russia! Russia!” with the audience.
Putin cut 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 pursuing 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.
Moscow has backed the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine since declaring independence in 2014, weeks after the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Russia captured the southern Kherson region and part of neighboring Zaporizhzhia 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.
Thousands gathered in Red Square on Friday night for a concert and rally, with Putin joining the celebration. Many waved Russian flags as entertainers from Russia and occupied parts of Ukraine performed, signing patriotic songs. Multiple Russian media reports said people at state-run companies and institutions were told to attend, and students were allowed to skip classes for their presence.
Putin has 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 illegal annexation was an attempt by Putin to avoid more battlefield defeats that could threaten his 22-year rule. By formalizing Russia’s gains, he seemingly hopes to scare Ukraine and its Western backers with 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 controls Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.
But the Kremlin is on the verge of another stinging military 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 annexed regions.
“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-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 pounded Ukrainian cities with missiles, rockets and suicide drones, with one strike reported to have killed 25 people and wounded 50, the general prosecutor’s office. The salvos together amounted to Moscow’s heaviest barrage in weeks.
The strike left deep craters and sent shrapnel tearing through the humanitarian convoy, killing their passengers. Nearby buildings were demolished. Trash bags, blankets and, for one victim, a blood-soaked towel, covered the bodies.
Analysts say 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 and shatter Western support.
A Ukrainian counteroffensive has deprived Moscow of mastery on the battlefield. 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 on people waiting in cars to cross into Russian-occupied territory so they could bring family members back across front lines, said Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office.
Russian-installed officials in Zaporizhzhia blamed Ukrainian forces, but gave no evidence.
Russian strikes were also reported in the city of Dnipro. Regional Gov. 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 targeted with Iranian-supplied suicide drones that Russia has increasingly deployed, seemingly to avoid losing more pilots who don’t have control of Ukraine’s skies.
Ukraine has vowed to retake all occupied territory and Russia has pledged to defend its gains, threatening nuclear-weapon use and mobilizing an additional 300,000 troops despite protests.
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.
The Russian-backed separatist leader of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, said the city is “half-encircled” by Ukrainian forces.
”Ukraine’s armed formations,” he told the RIA Novosti news agency, “are trying very hard to spoil our celebration.”