Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday presided over a ceremony to annex four Ukrainian regions partly occupied by his forces, escalating his seven-month war and taking it into an unpredictable new phase.
“This is the will of millions of people,” he said in a speech before hundreds of dignitaries in the St George’s Hall of the Kremlin.
The ceremony took place three days after the completion of hastily staged so-called referendums in which Moscow’s proxies in the occupied regions claimed majorities of up to 99% in favour of joining Russia.
Ukraine and Western governments said the votes, announced only 10 days ago, had been conducted at gunpoint and were bogus and illegitimate.
Ukraine, the United States and the head of the United Nations have all said the annexation ceremony has no legal value, with Kyiv describing it as a “Kremlin freak show”.
In a speech repeatedly interrupted by applause, Putin declared that Russia had four new regions. “People living in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson region and Zaporizhzhia region are becoming our compatriots forever,” he said.
He urged Ukraine to cease military action and return to the negotiating table. Kyiv has vowed to recapture all the lands seized by Russia and said that Russia’s decision to annex the territories has destroyed any prospect of talks.
Putin kept hundreds of assembled dignitaries waiting for 18 minutes before entering the imposing columned hall through a pair of golden doors opened by high-stepping guards, as a fanfare blared.
In his speech, he evoked the memory of Russian heroes from the 18th century to World War Two and repeated familiar accusations against the West, accusing it of colonial practices and recalling the use of nuclear weapons by the United States against Japan at the end of World War Two.
The hurried annexations mean that front lines of the war will now run through territory that Russia is declaring as its own and that Putin has said he is ready to defend with nuclear weapons if necessary.
Some Western politicians called that a bluff – something Putin explicitly denied. The United States says it has warned Russia of catastrophic consequences if it does use a nuclear weapon.