Putin annexes four Ukrainian territories in escalatory move

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed treaties of annexation for four regions of eastern and southern Ukraine, escalating a conflict with Kyiv and its Western allies who called the move illegal.

Putin made the announcement in a lavish ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow, before a crowd of seated supporters with Russian flags as his backdrop — which a senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described as a “Kremlin freak show.”

Putin appeared to sign “accession treaties” for the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine in the Kremlin’s ornate St. George’s Hall. 

“This is the will of millions of people,” Putin reportedly said in a speech before hundreds of dignitaries. “People living in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson region and Zaporizhzhia region are becoming our compatriots forever.” 

The Russian leader, in his speech, repeated veiled threats of Moscow’s nuclear capability, saying the use of nuclear weapons by the U.S. against Japan during WWII set a “precedent.”

The ceremony, which British intelligence warned earlier this week would take place in an effort to drum up domestic support, occurred after Russia held hastily-organized referendums in the four areas where its military is present but lacks full security and political control. 

Ukrainian forces have succeeded in recent weeks in pushing back Russian forces from some occupied territories.

The four Kremlin-appointed heads of the occupied Ukrainian territories sat at a table across from Putin, and later joined the Russian leader in a group handshake and chant celebrating the accords, despite serious expressions on many of the faces of the leaders and those in attendance. 

The referendum results and Putin’s annexation ceremony were condemned as staged and manufactured elections by the U.S. and allies, and described by the United Nations Secretary General as a “moment of peril” that violated the organization’s charter.

Moscow claimed that around 90 percent of individuals in these territories supported joining Russia, despite the vote taking place amid armed conflict and Russia failing to control both militarily and politically the entirety of the territories it is claiming to annex.  

Media reports and statements from U.S., the United Nations and other Western countries described voter intimidation over the course of the vote, with armed Russian soldiers at polling stations and, at times, going door-to-door to collect votes. 

The United States and its allies have rejected Moscow’s referendums.

“This so-called referenda was a sham — an absolute sham — and the results were manufactured in Moscow,” President Biden said at an event with Pacific island leaders on Thursday. “And the true will of the Ukrainian people is evident every day as they sacrifice their lives to save their people and maintain the independence of their country and in defense of freedom as well.”

Biden vowed to never recognize Russia’s claims on eastern Ukraine at the event on Thursday, denouncing Putin’s move as a “flagrant violation” of the United Nations charter.

“I want to be very clear about this: The United States will never, never, never recognize Russia’s claims on Ukraine sovereign territory,” Biden said.

His statement was followed by the departments of State, Treasury and Commerce announcing dozens of sanctions on Russian officials and entities they identified as tied to the referenda and annexation process and support Russia’s military-industrial complex.

The president announced earlier this week an additional $1.1 billion in military assistance to Ukraine, bringing the total funds for U.S.-provided weapons to nearly $17 billion. 

Congress on Thursday passed a stop-gap government funding bill with $12.3 billion earmarked for assistance for Ukraine. 

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the aid package “sends a resounding message from the American people – we will continue to support the people of Ukraine every step of the way, including those living under repression and illegal occupation in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, and Crimea.”

Still, Putin’s annexation of the four eastern Ukrainian regions represents a major escalation of Russia’s seven-month-long war with its neighbor. Putin ratcheted up his rhetoric amid domestic criticism of the drawn out Russian military operation, calling up 300,000 additional troops and making explicit nuclear threats as Ukrainian forces claim to have liberated an estimated 6,000 sq km (2,317 sq miles) in September. 

The calling up of reservists has also led to criticisms across Russia, with images of people seeking to cross the country’s borders and reports of violence at recruiting centers.

Russian forces reportedly pounded Ukrainian cities Friday, amid the annexation ceremony, with at least 25 people killed, The Associated Press reported. Missiles, rockets and suicide drones targeted the Ukrainian-controlled cities of Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaiv and Odesa. 

But The Institute for Study of War, an open-source analysis organization and think tank, reported that Ukrainian forces had made a significant military gain Friday, likely completing the encirclement of the eastern city of Lyman, a strategic foothold in the Luhansk region. 

ISW described the move as “highly consequential… and may allow Ukrainian troops to threaten Russian positions along the western Luhansk Oblast border and in the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk area.”

Zelensky remained defiant in an address on Thursday, saying the annexation will not be “what the Kremlin hopes for.” Zelensky also met with military commanders on Friday to discuss the “further liberation of Ukrainian lands from the occupiers,” according to a press release.

Updated at 11:01 a.m.

Tags Annexation Biden Biden Robert Menendez russia Russia Russia-Ukraine war ukraine Ukraine Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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