Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday annexed four parts of Ukraine occupied by his army, staging a grand ceremony in Moscow as Kyiv vowed to battle on and pushed for expedited NATO membership.
The event at the Kremlin — a turning point in recent post-Soviet history — came hours after shelling killed 25 people in Ukraine’s southern region of Zaporizhzhia.
Putin was defiant during his address to Russia’s political elite, telling the West that the internationally condemned manoeuvre was irreversible and urging Ukraine’s emboldened army to negotiate a surrender.
“I want to say this to the Kyiv regime and its masters in the West: People living in Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are becoming our citizens forever," Putin said.
“We call on the Kyiv regime to immediately stop fighting and stop all hostilities… and return to the negotiating table," the Russian leader added.
The packed hall erupted into chants of “Russia! Russia" after the four leaders inked the deal. Putin — rarely seen making physical contact since the pandemic — joined hands with his proxy leaders and they shouted along in unison on state TV.
Washington announced “severe" new sanctions against Russian officials and the country’s defence industry, and said G7 allies support imposing “costs" on any nation that backs the annexation.
President Volodymyr Zelensky immediately urged the US-led military alliance NATO to grant Ukraine expedited membership.
No talks with Putin
The Ukrainian leader in an address to the nation vowed never to hold talks with Russia so long as Putin was in power. “We will negotiate with the new president," Zelensky said.
US President Joe Biden condemned Russia’s “fraudulent" declaration, vowing to keep backing Kyiv army.
“We will continue to support Ukraine’s efforts to regain control of its territory by strengthening its hand militarily and diplomatically," he said.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg condemned the annexation as “illegal and illegitimate" but remained non-committal after Ukraine said it was applying to join the Western alliance.
“France opposes this and stands with Ukraine against Russian aggression," President Emmanuel Macron said, according to his office.
Despite warnings from Putin prior to the annexation that he could use nuclear weapons to defend the captured territories, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Kyiv would “continue liberating our land and our people".
Hours ahead of the ceremony, an attack in Zaporizhzhia in the south, killed at least 25 people as civilians were preparing to leave to pick up relatives, Ukrainian officials said.
Bodies clothed in civilian wear were strewn across the ground after the attack and windows of cars blown out, an AFP photographer said.
One man, 56-year-old Viktor, said his life was saved because he went to get a coffee. “The waitress gave it to me. And there was a bang. She got scared and left the cafe. A few minutes later, there was another explosion. Now she is on the floor," he said. “I managed to hide. She did not."
Ukrainian troops carrying out “terrorist act": pro-Kremlin regional chief
But pro-Kremlin regional chief Vladimir Rogov however said Kyiv was responsible attack in Zaporizhzhia and accused Ukrainian troops of carrying out a “terrorist act".
In central Moscow, at least 10,000 people convened for state-organised annexation celebrations, with huge banners emblazoned: “Donetsk. Lugansk. Zaporizhzhia. Kherson. Russia!"
“I’m happy if they want to join Russia," Natalya Bodner, a 37-year-old lawyer told AFP. “They have more hope than we do". “It should have been done a long time ago," a Russian serviceman Ildar Babaev from the southern region of Dagestan said.
The four territories create a crucial land corridor between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Moscow in 2014.
Ukraine forces press Donetsk
Together, all five regions including Crimea, make up around 20 percent of Ukraine, whose forces in recent weeks have been clawing back wins as part of a counter-offensive.
In Sloviansk, a city in Donetsk, a military medic who goes by the name of Coconut said the annexations were nonsense. “If my neighbour comes to my house and announces that it’s his, nobody believes it actually belongs to him," he told AFP.
Ukrainian forces were also on the doorstep of Lyman in Donetsk, which Moscow’s forces pummelled for weeks to capture this summer. “Lyman is partially surrounded," said Denis Pushilin, the pro-Moscow leader in the breakaway region of Donetsk, on social media adding later that Russian forces were holding out “with the last of their strength".
The four regions’ Kremlin-installed leaders formally requested annexation after claiming residents backed the move in referendums that were dismissed by Kyiv and the West as fraudulent.
The UN Security Council will vote Friday on a resolution condemning the referendums, according to France, the council’s current president, but it has no chance of passing due to Moscow’s veto power.
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