Russian President Vladimir Putin used a speech in Moscow on Friday to falsely proclaim four Ukrainian regions were now part of the Russian Federation, a move that comes amid Moscow's growing battlefield setbacks in its war in Ukraine and a decision to call up tens of thousands of reservists.
Putin claimed the illegal annexations were "the will of millions of people" to huge applause during a signing ceremony in the Kremlin's St. George's Hall despite widespread reports of voter coercion and people being pressured at gunpoint.
The illegal occupation could potentially raise the stakes of Russia's seven-month-old war in Ukraine because Putin vowed to defend the annexed territories with "all available means," a veiled reference to his insistence he would be prepared to use nuclear weapons if Russia's territory is threatened.
Russia is incorporating the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson areas of Ukraine – representing roughly 15% of Ukraine's territory – following widely discredited referenda that mirrored a similar move to annex Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014.
During his wide-ranging address Putin called on Ukraine to negotiate over the war Russia started and restated a laundry list of complaints against the West, such as that it "doesn't want us to be a free society" and it wants Russia to be a "colony." His address was full of historical inaccuracies about the fall of the Soviet Union. Putin also accused the U.S. and Britain of sabotaging Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea.
► The U.S. imposed broad new sanctions on Russia in response, with President Joe Biden saying that Putin's action lack legitimacy. "We will continue to support Ukraine’s efforts to regain control of its territory by strengthening its hand militarily and diplomatically," the U.S. leader said in a statement.
►Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that he has asked NATO to fast-track the country's membership application to the military alliance.
►To celebrate the incorporation, which Ukraine and U.S. officials have called illegal and illegitimate, an evening concert in Moscow's Red Square is also expected.
►Overnight, Ukraine's prosecutor's office said at least 25 people were killed after a Russian missile hit a convoy of civilian vehicles in Zaporizhzhia attempting to deliver humanitarian aid.
►Western nations, including Canada, also imposed new sanctions on Russian oligarchs, financial elites and Russian-installed officials in occupied areas of Ukraine.
White House: Referendums in Ukraine ‘pre-staged and falsified’
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan characterized Russia’s illegal annexation of sections of Ukraine as a flagrant violation of international law and part of Vladimir Putin’s playbook of “deceit, disinformation and aggression.”
"Based on our information, every aspect of this process was pre-staged and falsified,” Sullivan told reporters at the White House on Friday.
Earlier Friday, Putin falsely proclaimed four Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine were now part of the Russian Federation following forced elections in those provinces last week. Putin vowed to defend the annexed territories “with all available means” – a veiled reference to nuclear weapons – and accused the West of “Satanism.”
Sullivan said Putin's threats and "saber-rattling" in Ukraine pose a risk but that there's no indication of the "imminent use of nuclear weapons."
Putin’s reference to Satanism amounts to “over-the-top rhetoric and ranting” and further illustrates that he has no basis to justify what was essentially “a colonial and imperial land grab” in Ukraine, Sullivan said.
“Rather than fill in any kind of logic or moral defense of what he has done, he has to resort to these kinds of absurd arguments,” Sullivan said.
– Michael Collins and Joey Garrison
Biden calls pipeline leaks ‘deliberate act of sabotage’
President Joe Biden said Friday that leaks in a pair of natural gas pipelines between Russia and Europe were caused by a “deliberate act of sabotage.”
The U.S. and its NATO allies are working to find out exactly what happened to the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines, Biden told reporters at the White House.
Two underwater explosions were recorded in the Baltic Sea shortly before the leaks were found on Monday. European officials also said the explosions appear to be the result of a deliberate act, although it remains unclear who was responsible for the leaks.
Biden said the Russians are “pumping out disinformation and lies” about the leaks, an apparent reference to Putin accusing the U.S. and its allies of blowing up the lines.
Biden said the U.S. already has begun to help its allies protect the critical infrastructure. “At the appropriate moment, when things calm down, we’re going to be sending divers down to find out exactly what happened,” he said.
“We don’t know that yet, exactly,” Biden said. But, “just don’t listen to what Putin is saying. Because what he’s saying, we know is not true.”
– Michael Collins
U.S. imposes new sanctions
The Biden administration sanctioned 278 Russian legislators, 14 individuals closely associated with Vladimir Putin’s military on Friday following Putin's declaration that he's announcing four regions in Ukraine.
Sanctioned individuals included two international suppliers, three key leaders in Russia's financial architecture and immediate family members of Russian senior officials, U.S. officials said.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the sanctions are part of an “aggressive and coordinated effort to hold Putin and his enablers accountable for his unprovoked invasion, and limit their ability to prop up their economy.”
The Department of Commerce also said it would punish 57 entities in violation of U.S. export controls, and the State Department put visa restrictions on Ochur-Suge Mongush, a Russian national accused of torturing a Ukrainian prisoner of war.
State also said that it was taking steps to impose restrictions on a total of 910 individuals including members of Russia’s military, Belarusian military officials and Russian proxies in Ukraine.
– Francesca Chambers
Biden on Putin: ‘He doesn’t intimidate us’
President Joe Biden warned Vladimir Putin on Friday that the U.S. and its allies will not be intimidated by the Russian leader’s “reckless words and threats.”
“He’s not going to scare us, and he doesn’t intimidate us,” Biden told reporters at the White House.
Biden’s remarks came just hours after Putin falsely proclaimed four Ukrainian regions were now part of the Russian Federation and vowed to defend the annexed territories “with all available means.” Earlier, Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons if Russia’s territory is threatened.
Directing his remarks directly to Putin, Biden said the world would never accept Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian provinces and that the U.S. and its allies are prepared to defend “every single inch of NATO territory.”
“Mr. Putin, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying: Every inch,” Biden said.
– Michael Collins
Menendez: Putin getting desperate
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez said Friday that the U.S. will not recognize Russian authority over Ukrainian territory.
“We will demand accountability for the atrocities in places under Russian illegal occupation like Bucha and Izyum. And we will never entertain Putin’s delusional attempts to rewrite the map of Europe,” Menendez, D-N.J., said in a statement.
Menendez reiterated Putin's attempt to fold parts of Ukraine into Russia over losses on the battlefield were pushing the leader to take riskier and desperate measures.
Congress was on the verge of approving legislation that includes an additional $12.4 million in Ukrainian aid, and Menendez pledged the support would continue.
- Francesca Chambers
Ukraine asks for fast-track NATO application
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy released a video statement Friday shortly after President Vladimir Putin proclamation urging NATO to fast-track the country's membership application to the military alliance.
“We are taking our decisive step by signing Ukraine’s application for accelerated accession to NATO,” Zelenskyy said in comments that were also published on the social media app Telegram.
Ukraine was granted NATO "aspirant" status in March, a month after Russia invaded Ukraine. All 30 NATO-member countries would have to agree for Ukraine to join the alliance and normally this is a process that takes years to complete.
In a news conference, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg sidestepped a question from a reporter about whether now was the time to admit Ukraine to NATO, saying only that "consensus" from existing members was needed for that to happen.
Annexation follows widely discredited referendums
Ukraine and Western officials have characterized the move as little more than a land grab and desperate tactic by Putin to disguise growing battlefield losses to Ukraine.
Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Only a handful of countries, such as North Korea and Syria, have recognized that annexation.
Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced legislation on Thursday that would prohibit countries that recognize Russia's annexation of the four new regions from receiving economic or military assistance from the United States.
The bipartisan pair is also pushing for passage of legislation that would designate Russia a state sponsor of terror for over its actions in Ukraine. Just four countries -- North Korea, Syria, Cuba and Iran -- have the designation.
– Francesca Chambers and Kim Hjelmgaard
Russia calls in its reservists
Ever since Putin on Sept. 21 announced a call-up of reservists to fight in Ukraine, tens of thousands of men have fled Russia for neighboring countries such as Georgia, Kazakhstan and even Mongolia, where they have visa-free access.
Some Russian media have claimed the mobilization could allow up 1 million people to be conscripted, though the Kremlin denies this and Russia's defense ministry says the true figure is closer to 300,000. Some European countries such as Germany and Finland have taken steps to restrict entry for Russian citizens, citing concerns that not everyone leaving Russia is doing so because they oppose Putin's regime.
Military analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, believe Putin was forced to go ahead with the mobilization because of Russian battlefield losses to Ukraine at a time when Russia is running out of deployable troops. CSIS estimates that out of an initial invasion force of 190,000 Russian troops, the Russian army has sustained about 80,000 casualties.
– Kim Hjelmgaard
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Putin annexes areas of Ukraine, sparking new U.S. sanctions