KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed treaties to illegally annex more occupied Ukrainian territory in a sharp escalation of his war. Ukraine’s president responded with a surprise request to join the NATO military alliance.
Putin’s land grab and President Volodymyr Zelensky’s signature of what he called an ‘fast-track’ NATO membership application have prompted the two leaders to accelerate their collision course, raising fears a full-scale conflict between Russia and the West.
Putin has vowed to protect Ukraine’s newly annexed regions by “all available means”, a new nuclear threat he made during a signing ceremony in the Kremlin where he also railed furiously against the West, accusing the United States and its allies of seeking the destruction of Russia.
Zelenskyy then held his own signing ceremony in Kyiv, releasing a video of him putting a pen to papers he said were an official application for NATO membership.
Putin has repeatedly made it clear that any prospect of Ukraine joining the military alliance is one of his red lines and cited it as justification for his invasion, now in its eighth month, in Europe’s biggest land war since World War II.
In his speech, Putin urged Ukraine to sit down for peace talks, but insisted he would not discuss returning occupied areas. Zelenskyy said there would be no negotiations with Putin.
“We are ready for a dialogue with Russia, but… with another president of Russia,” the Ukrainian leader said.
At his signing ceremony in the Kremlin’s ornate St. George’s Hall, Putin accused the West of fueling hostilities to turn Russia into a “colony” and a “mob of soulless slaves”. His hardening stance in the conflict that has killed and injured tens of thousands has further heightened tensions already to levels not seen since the Cold War.
World leaders, including those of the major Group of Seven economies, responded with an avalanche of condemnation. The United States and the United Kingdom have announced more penalties.
US President Joe Biden said of Putin’s annexation of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions: “Make no mistake: these actions have no legitimacy.
“America and its allies will not be intimidated by Putin and his reckless words and threats,” Biden added, noting that the Russian leader “cannot take over his neighbor’s territory and get away with it.”
The European Union has declared that its 27 member states will never recognize the illegal referendums organized by Russia “as a pretext for this new violation of Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
Russia on Friday vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned the referendums, declared them to have no validity and urged all countries not to recognize annexation. China, India, Brazil and Gabon abstained in the vote in the 15-member council.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called it “the biggest attempt to annex European territory by force since World War II”.
The war is at “a pivotal moment”, he said, and Putin’s move to annex more territory – Russia now claims sovereignty over 15% of Ukraine – marks “the most escalating serious since the beginning of the war”. Stoltenberg was evasive about Zelenskyy’s fast-track NATO bid, saying alliance leaders “support Ukraine’s right to choose its own path, to decide what kind of security arrangements it has. want to be part of it.”
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said Zelensky’s move towards the military alliance was tantamount to “begging NATO to hasten the start of World War III”.
Zelenskyy has vowed to keep fighting, defying Putin’s warnings that Kyiv should not try to take back what it has lost.
“All the territory of our country will be liberated from this enemy,” he said. “Russia already knows this. She feels our power.”
The immediate ramifications of NATO’s “fast track” request were unclear, since approval requires unanimous member support. The supply of Western arms to Ukraine, however, has already brought it closer to the orbit of the alliance.
“De facto, we have already proven our compatibility with alliance standards,” Zelenskyy said. “We trust each other, we help each other and we protect each other.”
The Kremlin ceremony came three days after the completion in the occupied regions of Moscow-orchestrated ‘referendums’ on joining Russia, which Kyiv and the West have dismissed as a blatant land grab held under threat of a weapon and based on lies. In his fiery speech, Putin insisted that Ukraine treat the votes “with respect”.
At the end of the ceremony, the leaders of the occupied regions based in Moscow gathered around Putin, shook hands and chanted “Russia! Russia!” with the audience.
Putin made an angry face by accusing the United States and its allies of seeking to destroy Russia. He said the West was acting “like a parasite” and using its financial and technological might “to rob the whole world”.
He portrayed Russia as pursuing a historic mission to reclaim its post-Soviet great power status and counter Western dominance which he says is crumbling.
“History has called us to a battlefield to fight for our people, for historically great Russia, for future generations,” he said.
Moscow has backed the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine since they declared independence in 2014, weeks after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Russia captured the southern region of Kherson and part of the nearby city of Zaporizhzhia soon after Putin sent troops to Ukraine on February 24.
The Kremlin-controlled Russian parliament will meet next week to approve the annexation treaties, sending them to Putin for final approval.
The orchestrated process entered a celebratory phase on Friday night, with thousands gathering in Red Square for a concert and rally that Putin joined. Many waved Russian flags as artists from Russia and occupied parts of Ukraine performed patriotic songs. Russian media reported that employees of companies and public institutions were invited to attend and that students were allowed to skip class.
Putin’s land grab and partial troop mobilization were attempts to avoid further battlefield defeats that could threaten his 22-year rule. By formalizing Russia’s gains, he apparently hopes to scare off Ukraine and its Western backers by threatening to escalate the conflict unless they back down – which they show no sign of doing.
Russia controls most of the Luhansk and Kherson regions, around 60% of the Donetsk region and much of the Zaporizhzhia region, where it seized Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.
But the Kremlin is set to suffer another crushing military loss, with reports of the imminent Ukrainian encirclement of the eastern town of Lyman. Taking it back could pave the way for Ukraine to sink deep into Luhansk, one of the annexed regions.
“It looks quite pathetic. The Ukrainians are doing something, taking action in the real material world, while the Kremlin is building a kind of virtual reality, unable to respond in the real world,” the former editor said. Kremlin speechwriter turned analyst Abbas Gallyamov, adding that “the Kremlin cannot offer Russians anything comforting.
Russia pounded Ukrainian towns with missiles, rockets and suicide drones in Moscow’s heaviest barrage in weeks, with a strike in the capital of the Zaporizhzhia region killing 30 people and injuring 88.
During the Zaporizhzhia attack, anti-aircraft missiles that Russia reused as ground-attack weapons rained down on people waiting in cars to cross into Russian-occupied territory so they could bring back their family members across the front lines, said Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office.
Russian officials based in Zaporizhzhia blamed Ukrainian forces, but offered no evidence.
The strike left deep craters and sent shrapnel into the aid convoy, killing passengers. The neighboring buildings were demolished. The bodies were then covered with trash bags, blankets and, for one victim, a blood-soaked towel.
A Ukrainian counter-offensive deprived Moscow of control of the battlefield. Its grip on the Luhansk region looks increasingly fragile as Ukrainian forces make inroads with the pincer assault on Lyman, a key node for Russian military operations in Donbass and a sought-after prize. Russia-backed Donetsk separatist leader Denis Pushilin said Ukrainian forces had “half surrounded” Lyman. Ukraine maintains a large presence in the neighboring Donetsk region.
Russian strikes were also reported in the city of Dnipro. Regional Governor Valentyn Reznichenko said at least three people were killed and five injured.
The Ukrainian Air Force said the southern cities of Mykolaiv and Odessa were being targeted by Iranian-supplied suicide drones that Russia is increasingly deploying.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
Jon Gambrell and Hanna Arhirova, Associated Press