Russian President Vladimir Putin signed this Friday in the Kremlin the annexation of four regions of Ukraine controlled by his army and urged Ukraine to lay down its arms and negotiate to end seven months of conflict.
The lavish ceremony, marking a turning point in the conflict and in recent post-Soviet history, came hours after dozens of people were killed in a bombardment in the southern Ukrainian region of Zaporizhia in one of the worst attacks against civilians perpetrated in months.
Putin sounded defiant during a speech to Russia’s political elite, warning that annexation was irreversible and urging the Ukrainian military to lay down its arms and negotiate.
“I want to say this to the kyiv regime and its masters in the West: the inhabitants of Luhansk and Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhia become our citizens forever,” Putin said.
In a packed hall, those gathered in the Kremlin chanted “Russia! Russia!” in unison after the four leaders ratified the pact. Putin shook hands with them and was seen shouting along with the crowd on public television.
“We urge the kyiv regime to immediately cease firing, all hostilities and return to the negotiating table,” Putin added.
But minutes after Russia formalized the annexation, Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelensky said that Ukraine “will not negotiate” with Russia as long as “Putin is president” of that country.
In addition, the Ukrainian leader announced that Ukraine will sign an application for accelerated accession to NATO, in a video posted on social networks.
For his part, Putin also signed a decree to facilitate access to Russian nationality for foreigners who sign a contract to join the army.
In the days leading up to the ceremony, Putin had warned that he could use nuclear weapons to maintain his control over those territories, while kyiv promised that it will continue to try to repel Russian troops and Washington, which will “never” recognize Russia’s authority in the four regions.
This Friday, at least 25 people were killed in an attack on a column of civilian cars in Zaporizhia, in southern Ukraine, Ukrainian authorities reported.
Several bodies, dressed in civilian clothes, lay on the road after the attack, an AFP photographer observed, among broken glass and smashed cars.
Viktor, a 56-year-old man, said he managed to survive because he went out to buy a coffee.
“The waitress gave it to me. And there was a ‘bang’. She got scared and dropped the coffee. A few minutes later, there was another explosion. Now she’s on the floor,” he explained. “I managed to hide. She didn’t.”
“Only complete terrorists can do that,” said Volodimir Zelensky, who called Russia “bloody scum.”
But pro-Russian regional chief Vladimir Rogov blamed Ukrainian troops for the attack, calling it a “terrorist act”.
“The right decision”
Meanwhile, at least 10,000 people gathered in central Moscow to celebrate the annexation, in events organized by the authorities.
Posters were installed in Red Square reading “Donetsk. Lugansk. Zaporizhia. Kherson. Russia!” AFP journalists noted.
“I am happy if they want to join Russia,” Natalya Bodner, a 37-year-old lawyer, told AFP in central Moscow. “They have more hope than we do.”
“This should have been done a long time ago,” said a Russian official, Ildar Babaev, a native of the southern region of Dagestan. “This is the right decision,” he said.
The four territories form a crucial corridor between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Moscow in 2014.
Still, the Kremlin said Friday that it “needed to clarify” the exact borders of Kherson and Zaporizhia. Moscow does not fully control any of those territories.
Together, the five regions, including Crimea, represent about 20% of the territory of Ukraine, whose forces have recorded several victories in recent weeks as part of a counteroffensive.
In Sloviansk, a Donetsk city, a military doctor who goes by the pseudonym Coconut said the annexations made no sense.
“If my neighbor comes to my house and announces that it is his, no one will believe that it belongs to him,” he told AFP.
In the neighboring Kherson region, a senior Russian occupation official was killed overnight in a Ukrainian shelling of his home, with the help of US-supplied HIMARS missile systems, local authorities announced.
Security Council vote
On the other hand, the Ukrainian forces, having reconquered almost the entire Kharkov region (northeast), seemed to be preparing to launch themselves on Liman, an important railway junction in the Donetsk region controlled by Russia since May.
Ukrainian forces did not disclose ongoing operations, but Donetsk region separatist leader Denis Pushilin acknowledged that the Russians are “partially surrounded” and do not have “full control” of two towns near Liman.
Western leaders have reiterated that they will “never” recognize the annexations and promised new sanctions against Moscow.
Pro-Russian leaders from the four regions traveled to Moscow this week to take part in the ceremony on Friday.
They formally called for the annexation of the territories after holding referendums that both kyiv and Westerners branded a “farce.”
On Friday, the UN Security Council will have to rule on a resolution condemning these referendums which, however, will not prosper due to Russia’s veto power in this body.