Vladimir Putin has claimed four Ukrainian territories will be Russian “forever” in a move NATO’s chief has described as the most serious escalation of the conflict since the war began in February.
While railing against the West in a speech described by observers as unhinged, Mr Putin formally declared the biggest annexation in Europe since World War II.
The move sparked widespread condemnation, with the US warning of a swift and severe response and G7 countries declaring they would not recognise the annexation.
The annexed areas are Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson region and Zaporizhzhia which have been the focus of heavy fighting.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said it was a serious escalation of the conflict.
“Putin has mobilised hundreds of thousands of more troops, engaged in irresponsible nuclear sabre-rattling and now illegally annexed more Ukrainian territory,” Mr Stoltenberg said.
“Together, this represents the most serious escalation since the start of the war.”
He said the military alliance reaffirmed its “unwavering support” for Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and would not be deterred by Mr Putin from supporting the country in defending itself.
Meanwhile, in a fresh move from Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky has announced his country is applying “under an accelerated procedure” to become a member of NATO.
“It is here, in Ukraine, that the values of our Euro-Atlantic community have obtained real vital energy,” Mr Zelensky said in a pre-recorded video message.
“The strength of the nation that fights for freedom, and the strength of the nations that help in this fight.”
Mr Stoltenberg said member states supported Ukraine’s right to choose its own path.
However, he cautioned that any decision on membership has to be taken by all 30 members.
Putin enrages the West
A defiant Mr Putin proclaimed Russia’s annexation of a swathe of Ukraine in a pomp-filled Kremlin ceremony, promising Moscow would triumph in its “special military operation” against Kyiv, even as some of his troops faced potential defeat.
The Russian President’s proclamation of Russian rule over 15 per cent of Ukraine — the biggest annexation in Europe since World War II — has been firmly rejected by Western countries and even many of Russia’s close allies.
It comes as Russian forces in one of the four regions being annexed face being encircled by Ukrainian troops after Mr Putin ordered a massive mobilisation drive to get hundreds of thousands of Russian men to the front.
In one of the toughest anti-American speeches he has delivered in more than two decades in power, Mr Putin signalled he was ready to continue a battle for a “greater historical Russia” using whatever tools he had at his disposal and slammed the West as neo-colonial and Satanist.
“Truth is on our side. Russia is with us!” Mr Putin told his country’s political elite, who had gathered in one of the Kremlin’s grandest halls to watch him sign documents annexing the four Ukrainian regions.
He said the United States had set a precedent when it had dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, but stopped short of issuing new nuclear warnings against Ukraine himself, something he has done more than once in recent weeks.
The ceremony culminated in the 69-year-old leader chanting “Russia Russia!” as he clasped the hands of the four Russian-backed officials he wants to run the annexed regions, which Ukraine is fighting to win back.
Mr Putin said Russia and the four regions would defeat Ukraine together.
“People living in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson region and Zaporizhzhia region are becoming our compatriots forever,” said Mr Putin, referring to the four Ukrainian regions which he said Russia was annexing.
“We will defend our land with all our strength and all our means,” he said, calling on “the Kyiv regime to immediately cease hostilities and return to the negotiation table”.
Mr Zelensky, speaking in Kyiv after Mr Putin, said he was ready for peace talks if and when Russia got a new President and announced that Ukraine was formally applying for fast-track membership of the NATO military alliance, something Moscow fiercely opposes.
Mr Zelensky and the West have condemned referendums that Moscow held in the four Ukrainian regions — and said showed big majorities to join Russia — as illegal shams, while several dozen Ukrainians interviewed by Reuters in the last week said that only people they described as “Russian collaborators” had voted, with most people boycotting them.
US President Joe Biden condemned what he called Russia’s “fraudulent attempt” to annex sovereign Ukrainian territory, which he said was a flagrant violation of international law and said new US sanctions would hurt those who provided political or economic support to the annexation drive.
In Ukraine’s Donetsk region, Russia’s garrison in the town of Lyman was in serious trouble on Friday with reports from both sides saying Russian forces were nearly surrounded.
The encirclement could leave Ukrainian forces an open path to seize more territory in Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, captured earlier in some of the war’s most bitter fighting.
The pro-Russian leader in Donetsk acknowledged troops had lost full control of Yampil and Dobryshev, villages north and east of the city of Lyman, leaving Moscow’s 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.”
Ukraine’s military said it was withholding details of the situation on the battlefield until the area was stabilised, but that an operation was underway to encircle Russian forces.
The war’s brutality was further hammered home just hours before Mr Putin’s speech when missiles struck a convoy of civilian cars preparing to cross the frontline from Ukrainian-held territory in Zaporozhzhia province.
Reuters saw a dozen bodies amid blasted cars in a scene of carnage. Ukraine said 25 people had been killed and 74 wounded.
Ukrainian officials called it a deliberate Russian attempt to sever the last links across the front. Moscow blamed the Ukrainians.