Putin formally annexes four Ukrainian regions as conflict still rages

Al-Yurae– (AFP)- Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed documents during a Kremlin ceremony to incorporate four Ukrainian regions following referendums slammed as a “sham” by the international community. The ceremony came as fighting continued in some of the occupied regions, with Ukrainian forces encircling the city of Lyman in the Donetsk region.

EU leaders have declared they will “never recognise” Russia’s illegal annexation of four more regions in Ukraine and have accused the Kremlin of imperilling global security.

“We firmly reject and unequivocally condemn the illegal annexation by Russia of Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions,” the 27 leaders said.

Their statement was released as Putin formally signed an accord that sees Moscow lay claim to the occupied territories.

The leaders dismissed the “illegal” referendums staged by the Kremlin to justify its land grab and called on “all states and international organisations to unequivocally reject this illegal annexation”.

EU unveils stricter visa scrutiny for Russians

In response the EU has unveiled tighter visa requirements for Russians that would throw difficult – and, for some, impossible – hurdles up for them to enter the bloc except on humanitarian grounds.

The move comes as thousands have fled Russia – mainly to its non-EU neighbours – in an attempt to avoid the military mobilisation ordered by President Putin.

There have been splits between EU nations over how to deal with Russian draft dodgers as eastern members bordering Russia have taken a tough line and others like Germany offer possible refuge.

The updated guidelines presented by the European Commission would subject Russians applying for short-stay Schengen visas to much tougher scrutiny and longer delays. 

European border guards would also have more leeway to reassess already issued visas and reject or cancel them after fresh assessment.

The changes follow demands from EU member states along the frontier with Russia for an outright ban on visas for Russians.

Finland has already closed its border to Russians holding Schengen visas, which are typically issued for tourism purposes for a stay of up to three months in any of the 26 countries making up the internally passport-free zone.

The update focuses on “the security threat towards us” as Russia escalates its war footing over Ukraine, which is being strongly supported by the European Union, EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson told journalists.

“The security threat is real. The EU will protect itself and our citizens,” she said.UK’s defence minister visits Ukraine to offer support

Meanwhile British Defence Minister Ben Wallace met his Ukrainian counterpart in Kyiv this week to discuss the ongoing war and reiterate the country’s support, according to a British government statement.

“The Defence Secretary met with Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov to discuss the Armed Forces of Ukraine’s ongoing offensive to recapture and liberate territory seized in Putin’s illegal war,” said the statement.

“The pair also talked about the next steps in the war as Ukraine battles to free itself from Russia’s occupation, and what further support the UK can provide,” the statement added.

Putin slams ‘imperialist’ West, says it fears Russia

Putin has vowed to defend Russia’s “homeland and values” and repeated a long list of grievances against the West.

The US and its allies are waging a “hybrid war” against Russia, said Putin. The “imperialist” West had broken its promises to Russia and had no moral right to talk about democracy, he added.  

The annexation ceremony in the Kremlin’s opulent white-and-gold St. George’s Hall is being attended by pro-Kremlin heads of the four annexed Ukrainian regions, which are not recognised by the international community.

Addressing the gathering, Putin said Russia is not seeking to revive the Soviet Union. He added that Russia would defend its new territory with all the means at its disposal in remarks that could signal an escalation in the conflict in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky called Russia a “terrorist state” and “bloodthirsty scum” after the deadly missile strike earlier Friday on a civilian convoy in the Zaporizhzhia region.

Rescue workers say at least 23 people were killed and dozens more injured in the attack on a car market on the edge of the city of Zaporizhzhia.

“Only complete terrorists could do this,” Zelensky said, adding: “Bloodthirsty scum! You will definitely answer. For every lost Ukrainian life!”

The convoy of cars was preparing to leave Ukrainian-controlled territory to visit relatives and deliver supplies in an area occupied by Russia, witnesses and Ukrainian officials said.

Police Colonel Sergey Ujryumov, head of the explosive disposal unit of the Zaporizhzhia police department, said the market was hit by three S300 missiles.

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