Putin illegally annexes territories in Ukraine, in spite of global opposition
Updated September 30, 2022 at 2:36 PM ET
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 a rally with banners saying that 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 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," President Biden said in a statement Friday morning, as his administration announced fresh sanctions on Russia for its annexation of the Ukrainian regions.
The sanctions target government officials and leaders, as well as their family members, and officials of the Russian and Belarusian military. As part of the action, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Friday 14 international suppliers for supporting Russia's military supply chains.
"We will hold to account any individual, entity or country that provides political or economic support for Russia's illegal attempts to change the status of Ukrainian territory," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
On Friday afternoon, the president told reporters, "America and its allies are not going to be intimidated by Putin and his reckless words and threats."
"He can't seize his neighbors' territory and get away with it," Biden said, noting that the United States would "stay the course" and send more military equipment and resources to Ukraine.
Biden warned the Russian president that "America is fully prepared with our NATO allies to defend every single inch of NATO territory."
Ukraine applies for "accelerated" NATO membership
In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announcedhe was applying for "accelerated" NATO membership for his country.
"De facto, we have already completed our path to NATO," he said. "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 interaction. We trust each other, we help each other and we protect each other. This is what the alliance is."
Ukraine has adopted NATO-style conventions within its military, and has grown increasingly dependent on NATO-standard weapons sent by member countries. As he delivered his address, Zelenskyy stood in front of his office in his signature green t-shirt alongside his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, and parliament chair Ruslan Stefanchuk. The three signed a declaration for Ukraine's accession into NATO.
"The entire territory of our country will be liberated from this enemy," said Zelenskyy. "Not only Ukraine's enemy, but also an enemy of life itself, humanity, law and truth."
He called for peace negotiations with Russia, but only after Putin is no longer president.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg emphasizedthe alliance's "commitment to support Ukraine." He called Putin's recent actions "the most serious escalation since the start of the war."
Regarding Ukraine's potential membership, Stoltenberg told reporters that "NATO's door remains open," but said "a decision about membership has to be taken up by all 30 allies. Of course we take these decisions by consensus. Our focus now is on providing immediate support for Ukraine to help Ukraine defend itself against the Russian brutal invasion."
Friday's ceremony was reminiscent of Putin's Crimean Peninsula annexation in 2014
Putin framed the annexation 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 Zaporizhzhia 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. 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.
Julian Hayda contributed to this report from Kyiv. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.