Russian President Vladimir Putin held a grand ceremony in the Kremlin
Kyiv (Ukraine) (AFP) – Ukraine announced Saturday that it has cordoned off several thousand Russian troops near a key town in one of the four Moscow-controlled regions that President Vladimir Putin annexed a day earlier, despite condemnation from Kyiv and the West.
Putin held a grand ceremony in the Kremlin on Friday to celebrate the annexation of four regions controlled by his army.
“I want to say this to the Kyiv regime and to its masters in the West: the people who live in Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhia became citizens forever,” Putin said.
US President Joe Biden condemned Friday’s ceremony in Moscow as a “pseudo-routine” and vowed to continue supporting Kyiv.
On Saturday, Ukrainian forces were on the doorstep of the Donetsk town of Lyman, which Moscow forces have bombed for weeks to capture this spring.
On Saturday, the Ukrainian military said it had “besieged” a Russian gathering near the eastern town, estimated to number about 5,000 soldiers.
The governor of the neighboring Lugansk region, Sergei Gaidai, said that the trapped soldiers had three options: “try to break through, die together or surrender.”
The Kremlin-backed leader of Donetsk said on Friday that Russian forces and their allies were still holding on to Lyman with their “last strength”.
The four annexed regions form a crucial land corridor between Russia and Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.
The five regions together make up about 20 percent of Ukraine, where in recent weeks Kyiv has been retaking its territory.
– ‘Illegal and illegitimate’ annexation –
Washington announced “hard” new sanctions against Russian officials and the defense industry, and said G7 allies supported imposing “costs” on any country that supports annexation.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky immediately urged the US-led military alliance to grant his country fast-track membership.
He also vowed not to hold talks with Russia as long as Putin remains in power.
Locals cross the Donets River next to a ruined bridge
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg criticized the annexation as “illegal and illegitimate” but remained non-binding after Ukraine said it had applied to join the Western alliance.
The United States and Canada have expressed support for Ukraine’s membership but have shied away from promises to speed it up.
On Saturday, Turkey said Russia’s annexation was a “serious violation of well-established principles of international law”.
Despite Putin’s warnings before the annexation that he could use nuclear weapons to defend the captured territories, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that Kyiv “will continue to liberate our land and people.”
Kuleba also said Ukraine had referred the annexation to the International Court of Justice and urged the Hague-based court to hear the case “as soon as possible”.
– Nuclear plant chief arrested –
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday that Washington will announce an “immediate” new arms shipment to Kyiv next week.
Sullivan also said that while there was a “risk” of Putin using nuclear weapons, there was no indication that he would do so imminently.
On Saturday, Ukraine’s nuclear agency said a “Russian patrol” had detained the director general of the Moscow-controlled Zaporizhia nuclear power plant.
Map of Ukraine showing four regions where Moscow held controversial referendums from September 23 to 27 and annexed them
Energoatum said Ihor Murashov was leaving the factory on Friday when he was arrested and “driven in an unknown direction” while he was blindfolded.
Zaporizhzhya – Europe’s largest nuclear power facility – has been at the center of tensions in recent weeks after Moscow and Kiev accused each other of strikes on and near the plant, raising fears of a nuclear catastrophe.
Russia on Friday vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the annexation of the regions, while China, India, Brazil and Gabon abstained.
Although the Russian veto was certain, the Western powers had hoped to demonstrate Moscow’s increasing isolation on the world stage and would now take the condemnation effort to the General Assembly, where every country has a vote and no one can kill a resolution.
At a UNESCO meeting on Friday in Mexico City, representatives of dozens of countries pulled out as Russia took the floor to symbolically condemn the invasion of Ukraine.