President Vladimir Putin proclaimed the annexation of four Ukraine regions, even as Russian troops were poised to suffer one of the worst defeats of the war.
“People living in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson region and Zaporizhzhia region are becoming our compatriots forever,” Putin said during a ceremony Friday at the Kremlin.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy responded to the annexation by announcing he is submitting an “accelerated” bid to join the NATO military alliance.
The White House condemned Russia’s land grab. In a statement, President Joe Biden called the annexation fraudulent.
In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States and its allies will impose “swift and severe costs targeting additional Russian government officials, their family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials, and defense procurement networks, including international suppliers supporting Russia’s military-industrial complex.”
Russia says the result of referendums held in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia – all of which are partially-occupied areas of Ukraine – showed that overwhelming majorities of people in those areas wanted to become part of Russia. The regions represent nearly one-fifth of Ukraine.
Ukraine says the referendums violated international law and were carried out under the coercion of occupation.
Before the annexation, the Kremlin advised that any aggression in the annexed regions would be considered an attack on Russia. Reporters asked Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov if Ukrainian attempts to retake annexed territories would be considered an attack on Russia.
“It would not be anything else,” Peskov said.
Putin has said he is willing to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia’s “territorial integrity.”
Even as Putin moved forward with annexation on Friday, however, Ukrainian troops encircled hundreds of Russian troops at one of their main garrisons in northern Donetsk.
The pro-Russian leader in Ukraine’s Donetsk province acknowledged his forces have lost full control of two villages north and east of the city of Lyman, leaving the garrison “half-encircled.”
The Ukrainian army was “trying at all costs to spoil our historic events”, Denis Pushilin said. “This is very unpleasant news, but we must look soberly at the situation and draw conclusions from our mistakes.”
Pushilin was scheduled to attend the Friday annexation ceremony at the Kremlin.
Ukraine’s military confirmed that an operation to encircle Russian troops in the area was under way but said it was withholding any details until the situation is stabilized.
Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksiy Goncharenko tweeted: “Lyman is surrounded! The Ukrainian army is already in Yampil. The Russian army is trying to escape.”
Defeat there could give Ukraine and opportunity to recapture the swathes of the territory that Russia now claims.
Also on Friday, missiles struck a convoy of civilian cars preparing to cross from Ukrainian-held territory in Zaporozhzhia province. Officials say at least 23 people were killed and 28 people were wounded near Zaporizhzhia, and at least three were killed in Mykolaiv with at least 12 injured.
The convoys consisted of vehicles carrying families who were headed to the areas to rescue relatives from the occupied territory.
Zelenskyy said Russia was raging, “seeking revenge for our steadfastness and his failures.”
“Bloodthirsty scum!” Zelenskyy wrote on Telegram. “You will definitely answer. For every lost Ukrainian life!”
Meanwhile, Finland is the latest country to close its border to Russians. The Finland closing comes as hordes of Russian men are leaving the country to escape Russia’s military mobilization for continuing the invasion of Ukraine. In addition, Russia has begun opening draft offices at its borders to intercept men who may be leaving the country to avoid the mobilization.
On Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the planned annexation, saying it is illegal and “must not be accepted.”
“The U.N. Charter is clear,” Guterres told reporters Thursday. “Any annexation of a state’s territory by another state resulting from the threat or use of force is a violation of the principles of the U.N. Charter and international law.”
He said any decision to proceed with the annexation would have “no legal value and deserves to be condemned.”
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz tweeted Thursday that he assured Zelenskyy that Germany will never recognize the “so-called results.”
“The sham referendums carried out by Putin in the illegally occupied areas of Ukraine are worthless,” Scholz said.
In Washington, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal spoke about proposed legislation he and Republican Senator Lindsay Graham are supporting in response to Russia’s latest moves.
“Senator Graham and I are introducing today legislation that would very simply immediately require cutting off economic and military aid to any country that recognizes Vladimir Putin’s illegal annexation of four regions of Ukraine,” he said Thursday.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Wednesday that no matter what Russia claims, the areas remain Ukrainian territory.
“In response, we will work with our allies and partners to impose additional economic costs on Russia and individuals and entities inside and outside of Russia that provide support to this action,” she said.
At the U.N. Security Council, the United States is working with Albania on a draft resolution condemning the “sham referenda,” calling on states not to recognize any altered status of Ukraine and compelling Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine.
Russia will certainly use its veto to block the measure, but that will then allow member states to move to the General Assembly to seek condemnation there. A similar strategy following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea drew the rebuke of 100 countries.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday the EU is planning to respond with “sweeping new import bans on Russian products” and to expand its export ban “to deprive the Kremlin’s military complex of key technologies.”
“This will keep Russian products out of the European market and deprive Russia of an additional 7 billion euros in revenue,” von der Leyen told reporters in Brussels. The EU’s 27 member countries would have to approve the sanctions for them to take effect and the bloc has had difficulty in reaching agreement on some previous sanctions.
“We are determined to make the Kremlin pay for this further escalation,” she said.
VOA correspondents Margaret Besheer and Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.