Russia will never give up newly annexed territories in Ukraine, Putin insists at ceremony
Kremlin ceremony comes hours after Russia strike leaves 25 dead, dozens injured in Zaporizhzhia
Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the process of annexing parts of Ukraine on Friday by saying he was signing laws to absorb them despite international condemnation — and that he would protect the newly incorporated regions using "all available means."
In a speech preceding a treaty-signing ceremony to make four Ukrainian regions part of Russia, Putin warned his country would never give up the occupied areas and would protect them as part of its sovereign territory.
He urged Ukraine to sit down for talks to end the fighting but warned sternly that Russia would never surrender control of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. He accused the West of fuelling the hostilities as part of its plan to turn Russia into a "colony" and "crowds of slaves."
The Russian ceremony comes 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.
Responding to Putin's call for negotiations, Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelenskyy said, "We are ready for a dialogue with Russia, but with another president of Russia."
Zelenskyy also said his country is submitting an "accelerated" application to join the NATO military alliance.
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia's Security Council, said Zelenskyy's move toward the military alliance amounts to "begging NATO to accelerate the start of World War III."
Meanwhile, Russia on Friday vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Moscow's "illegal" referendums in Ukraine and saying they have "no validity." Russia has veto powers over resolutions put the UN as one of the five permanent members on the council.
The celebratory event in the Kremlin's opulent white-and-gold St. George's Hall was organized for Putin and the heads of the four regions of Ukraine to sign treaties for the areas to join Russia.
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 Putin sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Both houses of the Kremlin-controlled Russian parliament will meet next week to rubber-stamp the treaties, after which Putin will sign them into law.
Putin and his lieutenants have bluntly warned Ukraine against pressing an offensive to reclaim the regions, saying the nuclear power would view it as an act of aggression against its sovereign territory and wouldn't hesitate to use "all means available" in retaliation.
Thousands of people, some of them clutching Russian flags, packed into Moscow's Red Square for a celebration after the Kremlin event.
Putin told the crowds: "Victory will be ours!"
NATO, EU condemnation
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called it "the largest attempted annexation of European territory by force since the Second World War."
He said the war is at "a pivotal moment," and that Putin's decision to annex more territory — Russia has now claimed to have sovereignty over 15 per cent of the country — marks "the most serious escalation since the start of the war."
27 leaders condemn the illegal annexation. <br><br>We do not and will never recognise the sham 'referenda'.<br><br>We will never recognise this illegal annexation.<a href="https://t.co/WEMfLFnfe9">https://t.co/WEMfLFnfe9</a>—@CharlesMichel
The European Union's governing body released a statement as the Kremlin ceremony proceeded.
"We will never recognize this illegal annexation," the European Council said in a statement. "These decisions are null and void and cannot produce any legal effect whatsoever."
"We will strengthen our restrictive measures countering Russia's illegal actions," the statement added. "They will further increase pressure on Russia to end its war of aggression."
Devastation in convoy strike
The Kremlin ceremony came hours after at least 25 people were killed in Zaporizhzhia, a Russian strike condemned by Ukraine's president.
Zelenskyy posted on his Telegram channel on Friday that only "terrorists" would target civilians, and he accused Russia of trying to seek revenge against Ukraine for its "steadfastness" and to make up for its own battlefield failures.
He said the "enemy" Russia "cynically destroys peaceful Ukrainians because he lost everything human a long time ago" and warned that the country would answer "for every lost Ukrainian life."
Ukraine's Prosecutor's Office said another 50 people were injured in the S-300 missile attack on a convoy of vehicles on Zaporizhzhia's outskirts that officials said planned to ferry relatives back to safety from Russian-occupied territory.
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Zelenskyy's office, said four of the missiles that were launched had struck the convoy area, causing impact craters several metres deep near cars whose windows had all been blown out. Some of the dead lay on the ground covered by trash bags, blankets and towels, while others remained in their vehicles.
The missile attack came hours before Moscow prepared to formally annex four regions into Russia following an internationally condemned, Kremlin-orchestrated "referendum" vote.
Ukraine in strong position in Lyman: analysis
With Ukraine vowing to take back all occupied territory and Russia pledging to defend its gains — and threatening nuclear-weapon use to do so — the two countries are on an increasingly escalatory collision course.
That was underscored by the fighting for the city of Lyman, some 160 kilometres southeast of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city.
A key node for Russian military operations in the contested Donbas region, it is a sought-after prize for a Ukrainian counteroffensive that has had spectacular success since its launch in late August.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said the city's fall to Ukrainian forces "is imminent," unless Russia can ward off the collapse with speedy reinforcements, which appeared "highly unlikely."
The Russian-backed separatist leader of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, said the city is now "half-encircled" by Ukrainian forces. In comments reported by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, he described the setback as "worrying news."
Elsewhere, Russian strikes were also reported in the city of Dnipro. The regional governor, Valentyn Reznichenko, said at least one person was killed and five others were wounded by Russian Iskander missiles that slammed into a transportation company, destroying buses and also damaging highrise buildings.