World

Vladimir Putin signs treaties annexing Ukrainian regions

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Alexey Kudenko, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (Alexey Kudenko, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed treaties to annex occupied areas of Ukraine and said he would use “all available means” to protect the territory that Ukrainian and western officials said Moscow was claiming illegitimately and in violation of international law.

In a speech preceding the treaty-signing ceremony, Mr Putin urged Ukraine to sit down for talks to end the seven months of fighting that started when he ordered his troops to invade the neighbouring country.

But he warned that Russia would never give up the absorbed regions and would protect them as part of its sovereign territory.

The ceremony came three days after the completion of Kremlin-orchestrated “referendums” on joining Russia that were dismissed by Kyiv and the West as a bare-faced land grab held at gunpoint and based on lies.

The European Union’s 27 member states said they will never recognise the illegal referendums organised “as a pretext for this further violation of Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Mr Putin said Ukrainian authorities should “treat… with respect” the lopsided results of the Moscow-managed votes and warned sternly that Russia would never surrender control of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.

Both houses of the Kremlin-controlled Russian parliament will meet next week to rubberstamp the treaties for the regions to join Russia, sending them to Mr Putin for his approval.

Ukrainian officials dismissed his remarks, saying the future of Ukraine was being decided on the battlefield.

“We continue to work and liberate Ukrainian territories. And we don’t pay attention to those whose time to take pills has come,” said Andrii Yermak, head of the Ukrainian president’s office.

“The army is working, Ukraine is united. Only moving forward.”

The event in the Kremlin’s opulent St George’s Hall was organised for Mr Putin and the heads of the four regions of Ukraine to sign the treaties, in a sharp escalation of the seven-month conflict.

The separatist Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine have been backed by Moscow since declaring independence in 2014, weeks after the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

The southern Kherson region and part of neighbouring Zaporizhzhia were captured by Russia soon after Mr Putin sent troops into Ukraine on February 24.

He has bluntly warned Ukraine against pressing an offensive to reclaim the regions, saying Russia would view it as an act of aggression against its sovereign territory and would not hesitate to use “all means available” in retaliation, a reference to Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

The Kremlin-organised votes in Ukraine and the nuclear warning are an attempt by Mr Putin to avoid more defeats in Ukraine that could threaten his 22-year rule.

Russia controls most of the Luhansk and Kherson regions, about 60% of Donetsk and a large chunk of Zaporizhzhia, where it took control of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that at the very least Moscow aims to “liberate” the entire Donetsk region.

The Kremlin preceded the annexation ceremonies with another warning to Ukraine that it should not fight to take back the four regions. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow would view a Ukrainian attack on the taken territory as an act of aggression against Russia itself.

The annexations are Russia’s attempt to set its gains in stone, at least on paper, and scare Ukraine and its western backers with the prospect of an increasingly escalatory conflict unless they back down — which they show no signs of doing.

The Kremlin paved the way for the land-grabs with “referendums”, sometimes at gunpoint, that Ukraine and western powers universally dismissed as rigged shams.