It is being billed as the largest forcible takeover of territory in Europe since the second World War.
“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,” says ‘The Guardian’ newspaper.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the “accession treaties” formalising Russia’s annexation of four occupied regions in Ukraine – Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk.
“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 would be part of Russia “forever”.
After signing the treaties, the Russian-installed heads of the four regions gathered around Putin, linking hands and joining chants of “Russia! Russia!” with the applauding audience.
Putin addressed crowds in Moscow’s Red Square, where he vowed to “do everything” to “raise the level of security” in Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk.
The Russian leader claimed people in the four regions had made a choice to rejoin their “historic motherland”.
International media said that Putin has insisted that Russia’s position on annexing the four territories was non-negotiable and he called on the Kyiv regime in Ukraine to immediately cease fire and all military action.
He further said that Russia will defend them “with all the forces and means at our disposal.”
Western leaders have condemned Russia’s annexations as illegal, and the “referendums’’ that preceded them – purporting to show local support for joining Russia– as fraudulent.
US President Joe Biden was quick to denounce Putin’s actions to annex the four territories, saying they “have no legitimacy’’.
NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, described Putin’s land grab as the “most serious escalation” since the war began.
European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said the annexation declaration “won’t change anything”. “All territories illegally occupied by Russian invaders are Ukrainian land and will always be part of this sovereign nation,” she said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy responded to Putin’s speech on Friday by announcing that he was fast-tracking his country’s application to the NATO alliance.
“We are taking our decisive step by signing Ukraine’s application for accelerated accession to NATO,” he said.