Russia has officially laid claim to sovereignty over four partly occupied regions of Ukraine, provoking derision from western powers and prompting Kyiv to submit a formal bid to join Nato as soon as possible.
Russian president Vladimir Putin signed annexation documents with Moscow-appointed leaders of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions who staged sham “referendums” on the issue last week, in what he called part of “the great liberation mission of our people”.
“History has called us to the battlefield to fight for our people, for great historic Russia, for future generations,” Mr Putin said before a Kremlin audience of officials, vowing that residents of the annexed areas would be “our compatriots forever” and that Moscow would fight for them with “all our strength and all our means”.
He did not make reference to Russia’s nuclear arsenal, which he has recently threatened to use, but he accused the US of setting a “precedent” in bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the second World War.
Russia’s military does not control the entirety of any of the four regions, however, and western states and top United Nations officials have denounced Mr Putin’s annexation bid as an escalation of his war against Ukraine and a breach of international law.
“The United States condemns Russia’s fraudulent attempt today to annex sovereign Ukrainian territory. Russia is violating international law, trampling on the United Nations Charter, and showing its contempt for peaceful nations everywhere,” said US president Joe Biden.
“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. And I look forward to signing legislation ... that will provide an additional $12 billion (€12.25bn) to support Ukraine.”
Washington also imposed fresh sanctions on hundreds of Russian individuals and companies, including officials, their spouses and adult children, and companies that support Russia’s military supply chains.
“By wilfully undermining the rules-based international order and blatantly violating the fundamental rights of Ukraine to independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity ... Russia is putting global security at risk,” members of the European Council said in a statement.
“We will never recognise this illegal annexation. These decisions are null and void and cannot produce any legal effect whatsoever ... Ukraine is exercising its legitimate right to defend itself against the Russian aggression to regain full control of its territory and has the right to liberate occupied territories within its internationally recognised borders.”
‘Murders, torture, blackmail and lies’
Shortly after Mr Putin finished a speech in which he claimed Russia was heroically defending itself from a West that wants to destroy it and subjugate its people, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said his country was protecting the West from a Russia that “wants to rewrite history and redraw borders with murders, torture, blackmail and lies”.
“De facto, we have already completed our path to Nato. De facto, we have already proven interoperability with the alliance’s standards, they are real for Ukraine — real on the battlefield and in all aspects of our co-operation,” he said.
“We trust each other, we help each other and we protect each other. This is what the alliance is. De facto. Today, Ukraine is applying to make it de jure ... under an accelerated procedure.”
Mr Zelenskiy also said talks with Mr Putin would be impossible: “We are ready for dialogue with Russia, but with another president of Russia.”
As the Kremlin ceremony took place, Ukrainian officials said a large number of Russian soldiers were all but surrounded in the strategic transport hub of Lyman in the north of Donetsk region, which Kyiv’s forces advanced upon after routing Moscow’s troops in the neighbouring Kharkiv province.
In one of the single deadliest incidents for civilians since Russia launched its full-scale war in February, at least 25 people were killed and 50 injured on Friday when missiles hit cars waiting to enter occupied territory on the outskirts of the Kyiv-held city of Zaporizhzhia.