Russian President Vladimir Putin proclaimed the biggest annexation of territory in postwar Europe on Friday, claiming control over swaths of Ukraine in defiance of international law and in spite of his forces facing another significant battlefield setback.
In a grand ceremony at the Kremlin that was followed by a patriotic rally outside, Putin declared that the four partially occupied regions of his neighbor’s south and east were joining Russia forever — even as his troops appeared on the verge of encirclement in one strategic city.
The Russian leader repeated his threats of nuclear war to defend his fragile hold over the annexed territory, a dramatic escalation of the seven-month conflict that has seen Moscow respond to heavy losses by calling up hundreds of thousands of reservists and intensifying its confrontation with the West.
The speech was met with an immediate response by Kyiv and its allies.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that he was submitting his country’s formal application to join NATO, the Western military alliance Putin has framed his war as a struggle against. The United States said it was imposing "swift and severe costs" for Putin's move in the form of a new round of sanctions.
"The United States condemns Russia’s fraudulent attempt today to annex sovereign Ukrainian territory," President Joe Biden said in a statement. "Russia is violating international law, trampling on the United Nations Charter, and showing its contempt for peaceful nations everywhere."
In the Kremlin, the Russian leader held a grand ceremony in which he vowed to use "all available means" to defend the four regions he was co-opting.
“This is the will of millions of people,” Putin said Friday, words that few outside Russia see as credible for a move condemned in the West as a brazen and illegal land grab.
His speech was followed by Moscow-installed leaders of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia signing documents proclaiming them part of Russia, before joining hands with Putin and chanting “Russia! Russia!”
Minutes later, Zelenskyy posted a surprise online video announcing Ukraine was applying for accelerated accession to NATO. He also said that Kyiv was ready for peace talks with Russia — once it has a new leader, in response to Putin's urging for negotiations that he said would not include handing back the occupied territory.
It comes after votes were staged in the four regions that were widely criticized as rigged and preordained. Russian-installed local officials were accompanied by armed personnel going door to door.
Joining the alliance has been a goal of Kyiv's for years, and would give it the protection of collective defense promised by Washington and others. In reality, its membership appears incredibly unlikely given it could accelerate a direct military clash between Moscow and the West.
Still, the U.S. and others have provided billions of dollars of military support for Ukraine, as well as multiple rafts of sanctions. On Friday, Washington responded to Putin's statement with another salvo, imposing economic and visa sanctions on hundreds of Russian officials, bankers and military suppliers.
“We strongly support NATO’s open doors, we strongly support bringing into NATO countries that seek to join and that can add to NATO’s capabilities," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. "There’s a process for doing that and countries will continue to follow that process."
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia's annexation "represents the mo t serious escalation since the start of the war.”
He was noncommittal on Zelenskyy’s fast-track bid to join, saying alliance leaders “support Ukraine’s right to choose its own path, to decide what kind of security arrangements it wants to be part of.”
European Union leaders also issued a statement after Putin's speech saying they "reject and unequivocally condemn the illegal annexation by Russia" which not only violated Ukraine's rights, but also put "global security at risk."
Western governments, officials and experts have openly regretted not responding with tougher measures when Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014.
As well as announcing the annexation, Putin has partially mobilized his military — prompting domestic blowback and an exodus of Russians fleeing the draft — and ramped up his nuclear threats against Ukraine and the West. The moves are seen as a wider escalation after a series of punishing battlefield defeats at the hands of a lightning counteroffensive by Kyiv.
Putin delivered his barnstorming speech Friday to hundreds of officials and other dignitaries, some in suits, some in military uniforms, at a lavish ceremony under the giant, gold chandeliers of Georgievsky Hall, in the Great Kremlin Palace.
After briefly welcoming the four new regions, he went on to discuss centuries of Russian history in which he railed against Western "colonialism" and "satanism," drawing a standing ovation.
The packed audience had earlier stood for a minute’s silence as Putin hailed the Russian “heroes” who have died in the war, which he calls a “special military operation.”
The Kremlin then celebrated its claim over what amounts to as much as 15% of Ukraine with a pop concert on Moscow’s iconic Red Square. A stage was set up with giant video screens, and a large crowd watched musical acts followed by an appearance from Putin himself.
But it was clear that annexation does not mean control.
Thousands of Russian troops in the strategic city of Lyman in the eastern Donetsk region were on the verge of being surrounded, according to analysts and reports from both sides.
Underscoring the disconnect between Friday’s ceremonies and the ongoing chaos and bloodshed of the war, hours earlier a missile attack on a convoy of cars traveling from Ukrainian-held land in Zaporizhzhia to Russian-occupied areas killed at least 23 people, local officials said.
CORRECTION (Sept. 30, 2022, 9:45 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated António Guterres’ title. He is the U.N. secretary-general, not its director-general.