A defiant Vladimir Putin proclaimed Russia’s annexation of a swathe of Ukraine in a pomp-filled Kremlin ceremony, promising Moscow would triumph in its “special military operation” even as he faced a potentially serious new military reversal.
The Russian president’s proclamation of Russian rule over 15% of Ukraine – the biggest annexation in Europe since World War Two – was roundly rejected by Ukraine and Western countries, with the United States and Britain announcing new sanctions.
Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskiy said his country had submitted a fast track application to join the NATO military alliance and that he would not hold peace talks with Russia while Putin was still president.
Putin‘s proclamation came as Russian forces in one of the four regions being annexed face being encircled by Ukrainian troops, showing how tenuous Russia’s grip is on some of territory it is claiming.
In one of his toughest anti-American speeches in more than two decades in power, Putin signalled he was ready to continue what he called a battle for a “greater historical Russia”, slammed the West as out to destroy his country and, without evidence, accused Washington and its allies of blowing up the Nord Stream gas pipelines.
The four Ukrainian regions that he said Russia was absorbing had made a historic choice, he said.
“They have made a choice to be with their people, their motherland, to live with its fate, and to triumph with it. Truth is on our side. Russia is with us!” Putin told his country’s political elite, who had gathered in one of the Kremlin’s grandest halls to watch him sign the annexation documents.
“People living in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson region and Zaporizhzhia region are becoming our compatriots forever.”
“We will defend our land with all our strength and all our means,” he added, calling on “the Kyiv regime to immediately cease hostilities and return to the negotiation table”.
UKRAINE NATO BID
In Ukraine, President Zelenskiy said he was only ready for peace talks if and when Russia got a new president.
He also announced that Ukraine was formally applying for fast-track membership of NATO, something Moscow fiercely opposes, and accused Russia of redrawing borders “using murder, blackmail, mistreatment and lies”.
He said, however, that Kyiv remained committed to the idea of co-existence with Russia “on equal, honest, dignified and fair conditions”.
“Clearly, with this Russian president it is impossible. He does not know what dignity and honesty are. Therefore, we are ready for a dialogue with Russia, but with another president of Russia,” Zelenskiy said.
Putin said the United States had set a precedent when it had dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, while stopping short of issuing new nuclear warnings against Ukraine himself, something he has done more than once in recent weeks.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States had not yet seen Russia take any action that suggested it was contemplating the use of nuclear weapons, despite what he called Putin‘s “loose talk.”
The annexation ceremony culminated in Putin, 69, chanting “Russia! Russia!” as he clasped the hands of the Russian-backed officials he wants to run the annexed regions, which Ukraine is fighting to win back.
Thousands of people, some of them clutching Russian flags, then packed into Moscow’s Red Square to hear celebratory pop music. Putin told the crowd: “Victory will be ours!”
U.S. President Joe Biden said new U.S. sanctions would hurt those who provided political or economic support to the annexation drive.
“We will rally the international community to both denounce these moves and to hold Russia accountable. We will continue to provide Ukraine with the equipment it needs to defend itself, undeterred by Russia’s brazen effort to redraw the borders of its neighbour,” Biden said in a statement.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg accused Putin of provoking “the most serious escalation” of the war since it began on Feb. 24, but said he would not succeed in deterring the alliance from supporting Kyiv.
Ukraine and the West have condemned referendums that Moscow held in the four Ukrainian regions – and said showed big majorities to join Russia – as illegal shams. Several dozen Ukrainians interviewed by Reuters in the last week said that only people they described as “Russian collaborators” had voted, with most people boycotting them.
In Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, Russia’s garrison in the town of Lyman was in serious trouble on Friday with reports from both sides saying Russian forces were nearly surrounded.
Ukraine said it had all the supply routes to the Russian stronghold in the crosshairs of its artillery in the east, and told Moscow it would have to appeal to Kyiv if it wanted its forces to be allowed out.
The encirclement could leave Ukrainian forces an open path to seize more territory in Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, captured earlier in some of the war’s bitterest fighting.
Retired U.S. General Ben Hodges, a former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, said what looked like an unfolding defeat would further disrupt the Russian army’s already crippled logistics operations.
Michael Kofman, a U.S. expert on the Russian military, said: “Russia’s annexation announcement stands in sharp contrast to the military reality on the ground, as Russian forces face envelopment at Lyman. There’s a good chance it will be followed by another defeat and the collapse of that pocket.”
SHEETS DRAPED OVER BODIES
The war’s brutality was further hammered home just hours before Putin‘s speech when missiles struck a convoy of civilian cars preparing to cross the frontline from Ukrainian-held territory in Zaporozhzhia province.
Reuters saw a dozen bodies amid blasted cars in a scene of carnage. Ukraine said 30 people had been killed and dozens wounded.
Ukrainian officials called it a deliberate Russian attempt to sever the last links across the front. Moscow blamed the Ukrainians.
The convoy was assembling at a car park near Zaporizhzhia, the Ukrainian-held capital of one of the regions Moscow says it is annexing. Reuters saw around a dozen bodies.
Plastic sheets were draped over the bodies of a woman and young man in a green car. Two bodies lay in a white mini-van in front of another car. The corpse of an elderly woman lay nearby, next to her shopping bag.