Putin annexes 4 occupied territories; Ukraine applies to join NATO

At the Kremlin, the Russian leader held a lavish ceremony in which he vowed to defend four regions of his choice with “all means available.”

“This is the will of millions,” Putin said on Friday, in a move that few outside Russia saw credible as the West denounced it as a brazen and illegal land grab. “They made a choice to be with their people, with their country.”

Following his speech, Moscow-appointed leaders of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporozhye signed documents declaring them part of Russia, then joined Putin and sang the national anthem.

Minutes later, Zelensky posted a surprising online video announcing: “We are taking decisive steps to sign Ukraine’s application for accelerated NATO membership.”

Joining the coalition has been a goal of Kyiv for years and will provide it with the collective defense protection that Washington and others have promised. In fact, there are many obstacles hindering its development.

Still, the U.S. and other countries have provided Ukraine with billions of dollars in military support and a slew of sanctions. On Friday, it responded with another salvo to Putin’s statement, imposing economic and visa sanctions on hundreds of Russian and Belarusian officials, their families and businesses.

“We will hold accountable any individual, entity or country that provides political or economic support to Russia’s attempts to unlawfully alter Ukraine’s territorial status,” U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a statement.

In Europe, meanwhile, leaders issued a statement after Putin’s speech that they “rejected and unequivocally condemned Russia’s illegal annexation” that not only violated Ukraine’s rights but put “global security at risk”.

The vote comes after four districts that have been widely criticized as rigged and pre-booked. Local officials installed by Russia went door-to-door, accompanied by armed men.

In addition to announcing annexation, Putin has partially mobilized his army — sparking a domestic pushback and an exodus of Russians fleeing conscription — and has increased the nuclear threat to Ukraine and the West.

The moves are seen as a broader escalation after a series of punitive battlefield defeats in Kyiv’s blitzkrieg counteroffensive. When Russia annexed Crimea on the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014, Western governments, officials and experts publicly expressed regret for not taking tougher measures.

Putin delivers his barnstorming Hundreds of officials and other dignitaries, some in suits and some in military uniforms, were addressed Friday under a huge golden chandelier in the Georgievsky hall at the Kremlin’s Grand Palace.

Putin spoke at the Georgievsky Hall in Moscow on Friday.
Putin spoke at the Georgievsky Hall in Moscow on Friday.Gregory Sysoyev/Associated Press

After a brief welcome to the four new territories, he went on to discuss his centuries-old Russian history against Western “colonialism” and “Satanism,” to a standing ovation.

Earlier, the packed audience observed a minute’s silence as Putin paid tribute to Russia’s “heroes” who died in the war in what he called a “special military operation.”

A stage was set up in Moscow with huge video screens and billboards announcing the four regions of Russia. The Kremlin will celebrate its claim to up to 15 percent of Ukraine’s territory with a pop concert on the city’s iconic Red Square.

But underscoring the disconnect between Friday’s ceremony and the ongoing chaos and bloodshed of the war, local officials said, hours earlier, missiles hit a convoy from Zaporozhye’s Ukrainian-held lands heading for Russian-occupied territory, killing at least 10,000 people. 23 people died.

It is also clear that mergers do not imply control.

Thousands of Russian troops in the strategic city of Lehman in the eastern Donetsk region are on the brink of being surrounded by Ukraine, according to the Institute for War Studies, a U.S. military think tank, and other observers.

Rob Lee, a military analyst who documented the conflict, tweet Lyman’s “pocket” could collapse at any time on Thursday, which would “overshadow the annexation announcement.”

It was unclear whether Putin made demands on all four regions, or just those parts his military firmly controls.

correct (September 30, 2022 at 9:45 am ET): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Antonio Guterres’ title.He is the Secretary General of the United Nations, not the Director General

Reuters and Peter Alexander contributed.

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