Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday annexed four territories in Ukraine controlled by his army at a grand ceremony in the Kremlin and urged Kyiv to lay down its arms and negotiate an end to seven months of fighting.
The lavish ceremony 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, one of the worst attacks against civilians in months.
Mr. Putin was defiant during a address to Russia’s most senior political elite, telling the West the land grab was irreversible and calling on Ukraine’s emboldened army to give up and 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,” Mr. 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 to chants of “Russia! Russia” after the four leaders inked the deal, and Mr. Putin — rarely seen making physical contact since the pandemic — joined hands with his proxy leaders and was shown shouting along in unison on state TV.
Leading up to the ceremony Mr. Putin warned he could use nuclear weapons to retain control of the territories as Kyiv vowed the move would make no difference to its aims of kicking out Russian troops.
Ukraine’s closest backer, Washington, said it would “never” recognise Russia’s authority in the regions.
‘Only complete terrorists could do this’
But early on Friday, 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 of people wearing civilian clothes 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.”
“Only complete terrorists could do this,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “You will definitely answer,” he added.
But pro-Kremlin regional chief Vladimir Rogov accused Ukrainian troops of carrying out a “terrorist act”.
In central Moscow, at least 10,000 people were convening for state-organised annexation celebrations, with huge banners emblazoned: “Donetsk. Lugansk. Zaporizhzhia. Kherson. Russia!”
‘Nobody believes it’
“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.
“This is the right decision”.
The four territories create a crucial land corridor between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Moscow in 2014.
But the Kremlin said Friday it “needed to clarify” the exact borders of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — neither fully controlled by Moscow’s forces — that it intends to annex.
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.
In Kherson, Russian officials announced that Ukrainian strikes with US-supplied precision artillery systems had killed a senior security chief of the Russian-controlled region.
Security Council vote
A “pinpoint” strike by Himars hit his house, Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of the Russian proxy administration said.
It was the latest of several targeted attacks on Russian-appointed officials in the region.
Ukrainian forces are 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. Two nearby villages were “not fully under our control,” he added.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden said the United States would “never, never, never” recognise Russian sovereignty over the territories set for annexation.
The four regions’ Kremlin-installed leaders formally requested annexation after claiming residents backed the move in hastily organised referendums that were dismissed by Kyiv and the West as fraudulent.
Ukraine has said the West’s only appropriate response is to hit Russia with more sanctions and to supply Ukrainian forces with more weapons to keep reclaiming territory.
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.
Mr. Zelensky is calling an “urgent” meeting of his national security council for Friday, his spokesman said.