President Putin signs accord to annex four occupied Ukrainian regions
Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed treaties to annex parts of Ukraine into Russia, defying Western powers. In a ceremony in the Kremlin's opulent white-and-gold St. George's Hall, Putin and the Russian-installed leaders in the four regions of Ukraine put their names on treaties for them to join Russia, in a sharp escalation of the seven-month conflict. The signing ceremony comes three days after the completion of Kremlin-orchestrated "referendums" on joining Russia that were dismissed by Kyiv and the West as a "sham." 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 have been under Russian control since early in in the conflict, which began in February. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy repeated on Friday his pledge to retake all of the Ukrainian territory held by Russia. "The entire territory of our country will be liberated from this enemy – the enemy not only of Ukraine, but also of life itself, humanity, law and truth," he said. "Russia already knows this. It feels our power. It sees that it is here, in Ukraine, that we prove the strength of our values." Responding to calls for negotiations from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Zelenskyy added: "We are ready for a dialogue with Russia, but … with another president of Russia." In a video Zelenskyy was also seen signing an application "for accelerated accession to NATO" along with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and the head of Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council of Ukraine) Ruslan Stefanchuk. It wasn’t immediately clear what an “accelerated” application would mean, as ascension to NATO requires the unanimous support of the alliance’s members.