Vladimir Putin has signed “accession treaties” formalising Russia’s illegal annexation of four occupied regions in Ukraine, marking the largest forcible takeover of territory in Europe since the second world war.
The signing ceremony, held in defiance of international law, took place in the Grand Kremlin Palace in the presence of the country’s political elites, and comes on the heels of Kremlin-orchestrated fake referendums in the four Ukrainian regions – Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk.
Putin kicked off the ceremony with a lengthy, combative and angry speech in which the Russian leader issued new nuclear threats, promising to “protect” the newly annexed lands “with all the forces and means at our disposal”.
“The people have made their choice. An unequivocal choice … This is the will of millions of people,” Putin said, adding that the citizens of the four occupied regions will be part of Russia “for ever”.
Shortly after, Putin signed the “accession treaties” on a podium alongside the Russian-installed heads of Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk.
Hours earlier, Russian forces launched a missile attack on people waiting in cars in Zaporizhzhia city to cross into Russian-occupied territory so they could bring family members back across the frontlines, killing dozens.
Ukraine and its western allies have previously said they would never recognise Russia’s claims on Ukraine’s territory, while the UN secretary general, António Guterres, said on Thursday evening that the annexation “has no legal value and deserves to be condemned”.
Putin’s decision to sign treaties annexing the territories, some of which Russia does not fully control, is a major escalation of Russia’s seven-month-old war and is likely to shut the door on diplomacy for years to come.
Taken together, Russia is annexing at least 40,000 square miles of eastern and southern Ukraine, about 15% of Ukraine’s total area, equal to the size of Portugal or Serbia.