Putin’s annexation bid in Ukraine triggers new sanctions, Western condemnation
WASHINGTON — The war in Ukraine lurched into a volatile new phase Friday as Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees declaring the annexation of four Ukrainian regions, drawing widespread international condemnation and triggering punitive new economic measures from Washington and its Western allies.
Ukraine responded to the Russian move with a swift show of defiance, declaring that Moscow’s attempted territorial seizures in the country’s south and east would not stand. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy held a signing ceremony of his own, saying his government was submitting an “accelerated” application to join NATO.
“We are de facto allies already,” he said of Ukraine’s partnership with the West.
The United States and Group of 7 allies answered what they called Russia’s illegitimate move by issuing a new round of sanctions and warning other nations that they will be similarly punished should they support the Kremlin.
“Russia is violating international law, trampling on the United Nations charter, and showing its contempt for peaceful nations everywhere,” President Joe Biden said in a statement condemning Russia’s actions. “Make no mistake: These actions have no legitimacy.”
Moscow’s self-declared land grab now means that a battlefront stretching hundreds of miles will now run through territory that Russia considers part of its motherland, and which Putin has threatened to defend with nuclear weapons if necessary.
Putin’s declaration, unveiled at a pomp-filled ceremony in the Kremlin’s ornate St. George‘s Hall, comes against a backdrop of stinging battlefield setbacks in Ukraine. A sweeping Ukrainian counteroffensive in the country’s northeast seemingly prompted Russia’s first public military mobilization since World War II, announced last week, which sent tens of thousands of fighting-age Russian men fleeing to avoid conscription.
Moscow does not have full military control of the regions it now claims are an integral part of Russia, and more humiliating reversals may be in store. In one of the annexed regions, Donetsk, Ukrainian forces are reported to be encircling the eastern city of Lyman, a key Russian operational node whose recapture would be a major victory for Ukraine.
The Kremlin-anointed leader of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin — who like all four Russian-backed regional chiefs was on hand for Putin’s signing ceremony — complained that Ukrainian forces were “trying at all costs to spoil our historic events.”
The announced annexations comprise about 15% of Ukraine’s territory. Zelenskyy brushed aside Putin’s warnings against trying to reclaim Russian-occupied areas, telling compatriots that “the entire territory of our country will be liberated from this enemy.”
Meanwhile, civilian suffering is intensifying. Hours before the Russian leader spoke, dozens of civilians were killed in a missile attack outside the city of Zaporizhzhia. A long line of Ukrainian passenger cars had been waiting to cross into Russian-held territory, with many travelers seeking to retrieve family members and ferry them back into Ukrainian-controlled areas.
Russia denies deliberately targeting civilians, but Ukrainian officials called it the latest bloody instance of nonmilitary targets being intentionally struck. Russia is also running low on precision munitions, according to Western military analysts, and often resorts to using heavily destructive but highly inaccurate weaponry in populated areas.
Following Putin’s speech, the Treasury Department sanctioned 14 international suppliers for supporting Russia’s military supply chains as well as 109 additional state Duma members and 169 members of the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation.
Biden, who vowed that the U.S. would continue to support Ukraine with defense aid, including a new $1.1 billion package announced earlier this week, urged “all members of the international community to reject Russia’s illegal attempts at annexation and to stand with the people of Ukraine for as long as it takes.”
Addressing the subject of Russia briefly after a short speech about the government’s response to Hurricane Ian, Biden said that “Putin’s actions are a sign he’s struggling” and vowed that the U.S. and its NATO allies would “stay the course” to support Ukraine.
He also responded directly to Putin’s talk of nuclear weapons. “America is fully prepared with our NATO allies to defend every single inch of NATO territory, every single inch,” Biden said. “Mr. Putin, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. Every inch.”
Russia defended its move by claiming annexation had been supported by local referendums, but the international community dismissed them as sham votes.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, in a statement, issued a clear warning, noting that the G-7 had agreed to impose sanctions on “any individual, entity, or country that provides political or economic support for Russia’s illegal attempts to change the status of Ukrainian territory.”
But seven months into a conflict that has seen the U.S. and Western allies impose severe economic consequences for Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Russia only looks to be digging in deeper, despite failing to conquer Kyiv in the war’s early days and, more recently, suffering losses in the still contested eastern region where Ukrainian forces have retaken land Russia had controlled for a time.
Zelenskyy’s declaration that Ukraine would seek to join NATO may have been largely symbolic. Despite the flow of Western weaponry to the Ukraine government, troops from NATO nations are being deliberately withheld from any direct combat role. New NATO members are accepted only with unanimous consent of all alliance members, an accession process that Finland and Sweden formally began earlier this year.
“NATO is not about to say, ‘OK, we’re going to let you in,’ when Ukraine is in an active conflict with Russia,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a global risk assessment firm in New York. Because of NATO’s Article V, which deems an attack on any member an attack on the entire alliance, Ukraine’s accession “would force NATO into the war,” he said.
“But Putin has put himself in a corner. We’ve known for months now that NATO was getting stronger because of Putin,” Bremmer added, noting Germany’s increased defense spending, NATO’s new forward deployments on its eastern flank, the accession of Finland and Sweden and the alliance’s close coordination with Ukraine, which has far exceeded expectations on the battlefield. “Eventually, once this war is over, you can see Ukraine being admitted to NATO, which was the big thing Putin was trying to avoid. But Russia is simply no longer part of the community of nations.”
Even before Putin’s signing of the so-called accession treaties covering the regions of Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk, Ukraine and its Western allies had said they would never recognize Moscow’s claim. On the eve of the signing, U.N Secretary-General António Guterres said the annexation bid had “no legal value” and “deserves to be condemned.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Putin’s proclamation “won’t change anything,” adding that the territories in question “are Ukrainian land and will always be part of this sovereign nation.”
Putin, in his 37-minute speech Friday announcing that the four Ukrainian regions would become part of Russia, accused the U.S. of “satanism” and “neocolonial hegemony.” He framed the battle as an existential war with the West, going as far as to justify his possible use of nuclear weapons by noting that the U.S. was the first country to deploy them at the end of World War II.
“They created a precedent,” Putin said, after blasting the U.S. as “hypocritical.”
Washington and its European allies signaled a united front in the face of Putin’s combative rhetoric, some of the harshest he has employed since the war began.
The White House said national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, with both expressing a “firm commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The talks also touched on the recent apparent sabotage of Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea, which Russia is suspected of carrying out. Moscow vehemently denies involvement.