MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved to formally annex four Ukrainian territories, signing what he calls “accession treaties” that world powers refuse to recognize. It’s Putin’s latest attempt to redraw the map of Europe at Ukraine’s expense.
“The people made their choice,”said Putin in a signing ceremony at the Kremlin’s St. George hall. “And that choice won’t be betrayed” by Russia, he said.
The Russian leader called on Ukraine to end hostilities and hold negotiations with Moscow — but insisted that the status of the annexed territories was not up for discussion.
“I want the authorities in Kyiv and their real overlords in the West to hear me: the residents of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson are becoming our citizens,” Putin said. “Forever.”
Putin was joined by Moscow-backed separatist leaders and Kremlin-appointed officials from the four regions, as senior Russian lawmakers and dignitaries looked on.
Outside the Kremlin, preparations were under way for an evening concert and rally with banners saying Russia and the newly integrated territories are “together forever.”
The move caps a week that saw the Kremlin choreograph referendums in Russian-occupied territories that purportedly delivered overwhelming majorities in favor of joining Russia.
Ukraine and its Western allies denounced those votes as “shams,” in violation of international law.
United Nations chief António Guterres, President Biden and other world leaders have condemned these actions.
“The United States will never, never, never recognize Russia’s claims on Ukraine sovereign territory,” Biden said. “This so-called referenda was a sham — an absolute sham — and the results were manufactured in Moscow.”
Putin, however, framed the decision as a historical justice following the breakup of the Soviet Union that had left Russian speakers separated from their homeland — and the West dictating world affairs according to its own rules.
“The West decides who has a right to self-determination … who gave them that right?” said Putin.
The Russian leader argued the U.S. was the world’s aggressor, leaving a history of destruction and oppression in its wake.
Friday’s ceremony echoed Putin’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, following a Kremlin-backed referendum there in 2014 — a move that most countries still do not recognize to this day.
Once again, Western powers accused Russia this month of using the guise of staged votes to justify its annexation of Ukraine’s territory — often at the barrel of a gun.
Indeed, just hours before Friday’s ceremony, Putin formally recognized the regions of Kherson and Zaporzhzhia as “independent” from Ukraine — despite Russian forces controlling only a portion of the territory.
In a reminder of the ongoing fighting, a missile in Zaporizhzhia struck a bus stop and checkpoint, killing 23 and injuring scores. Ukraine blamed the attack on Russia. Moscow’s proxies in the area said Ukrainian forces had launched several strikes in the area.
The other two regions — Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas — were recognized as independent by Moscow back in February. At the time, Putin signed a security pact with them, which he then used as justification to send Russian troops into Ukraine days later.
Formal ratification of the territories into the Russian Federation will now move to Russia’s parliament and constitutional court — whose approval is widely seen as a foregone conclusion.
The Russian government’s annexation has unfolded as it works to deploy an additional 300,000 troops to bolster its military campaign amid a Ukrainian counteroffensive that has retaken territory in the south and northeast of Ukraine.
Western officials have pointed to the timing as evidence of Kremlin desperation to solidify Russian gains before their lines collapse further. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has accused Moscow of seeking to mobilize Ukrainians in annexed areas for the military campaign as well.
Meanwhile, Russian officials have openly warned that the newly incorporated territories would be entitled to protections under Russia’s nuclear umbrella.