MOSCOW, Russia — Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the agreements on Friday to illegally annex the occupied Ukrainian territory in a dramatic escalation of his seven-month invasion. The President of Ukraine reacted to the unexpected application to join the NATO military alliance.

Putin’s land grab and President Vladimir Zelensky’s signing of an “accelerated” application to join NATO have put the two leaders on a collision course, raising fears of a full-blown conflict between Russia and the West.

Putin promised to defend the recently annexed regions of Ukraine “with all available means.” He voiced this nuclear threat at the signing ceremony in the Kremlin, where he also lashed out at the West, accusing the US and its allies of seeking to destroy Russia.

Zelensky then held his own signing ceremony in Kyiv, releasing a video of himself putting his pen to documents he said were a formal request to join NATO.

Putin has repeatedly made it clear that any prospect of Ukraine joining the world’s largest military alliance is one of his red lines, and has cited it as justification for his invasion, Europe’s biggest land war since World War II.

In his speech, Putin called on Ukraine to sit down at the table of peace negotiations, but immediately insisted that he would not discuss the return of the occupied regions. Zelensky said that there will be no negotiations with Putin.

“We are ready for a dialogue with Russia, but… with another president of Russia,” the Ukrainian president said.

In his signing ceremony in the Kremlin’s ornate St. George’s Hall, Putin accused the West of fomenting hostilities as part of what he called a plan to turn Russia into a “colony” and “slave hordes.” Strengthening his position in the conflict, which has killed and injured tens of thousands of people, has heightened tensions that have already reached levels not seen since the Cold War.

Western countries responded with an avalanche of condemnation and a declaration of greater punishment for Russia. The The US announced sanctions for more than 1,000 people and firms linked to the Russian invasion, including the head of the Central Bank.

President Joe Biden said about Putin’s annexation of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporozhye regions: “Make no mistake: these actions have no legitimacy.”

The European Union rejected and condemned the “illegal annexation”. Its 27 member states said they would never recognize the illegal referendums organized by Russia “as a basis for this further violation of the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called it “the biggest attempt at the forcible annexation of European territory since World War II.” He said the war was at a “turning point” and that Putin’s decision to annex additional territory — Russia has claimed sovereignty over 15 percent of the country — represented “the most serious escalation since the war began.”

Zelensky has vowed to continue the fight, ignoring Putin’s warnings that Ukraine should not try to regain what it has lost.

“The entire territory of our country will be freed from this enemy,” said the Ukrainian leader. – Russia already knows this. She feels our power.”

The immediate implications of the “fast-track” application to NATO were unclear, as approval requires unanimous support from members. However, supplies of Western weapons to Ukraine have already brought it closer to the alliance’s orbit.

“De facto, we have already proven compatibility with alliance standards,” said Zelensky. “We trust each other, help each other and protect each other.”

Putin’s ceremony in the Kremlin came three days after Moscow-sponsored “referendums” on joining Russia in the occupied regions, which Kyiv and the West dismissed as an open-faced land grab at gunpoint and based on lies.

In his impassioned speech at the ceremony, Putin insisted that Ukraine should treat the Kremlin-run vote “with respect.”

After the ceremony of signing treaties on accession to Russia, Moscow-appointed leaders of the occupied regions gathered around Putin and all of them joined hands, chanting “Russia! Russia!” with the audience.

Putin accused the United States and its allies of seeking to destroy Russia. He said the West acted “like a parasite” and used its financial and technological power “to rob the whole world”.

He portrayed Russia as on a historic mission to restore its post-Soviet great power status and counter Western dominance, which he said was crumbling.

“History has called us to the battlefield to fight for our people, for the great historical Russia, for future generations,” he said.

Moscow has supported the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine since they declared independence in 2014, weeks after the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Russia seized the southern Kherson region and part of neighboring Zaporozhye shortly after Putin moved troops into Ukraine on February 24.

Both chambers of the Kremlin-controlled Russian parliament will meet next week to approve treaties on the regions’ accession to Russia and send them to Putin for approval.

Thousands of people gathered on Red Square on Friday night for a concert and rally, and Putin joined the celebration. Many waved Russian flags as artists from Russia and occupied parts of Ukraine performed patriotic songs. Multiple Russian media reports said that people in state-owned companies and institutions were ordered to attend, and students were allowed to miss classes for their presence.

Putin has warned Ukraine against an offensive to reclaim the regions, saying Russia would view it as an act of aggression – a threat Moscow could back up with the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear warheads.

The illegal annexation was Putin’s attempt to avoid further defeats on the battlefield that could threaten his 22-year rule. By formalizing Russia’s preferences, he apparently hopes to frighten Ukraine and its Western backers into further escalation of the conflict unless they back down—which they show no sign of doing.

Russia controls most of Luhansk and Kherson Oblasts, about 60% of Donetsk Oblast and a large chunk of Zaporizhia Oblast, where it controls Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.

But the Kremlin is on the verge of another military loss, with reports of an imminent encirclement of the Ukrainian city of Liman in the east of the country. The return could open the way for Ukraine to push deep into Luhansk, one of the annexed regions.

“It looks pretty pathetic. Ukrainians are doing something, taking steps in the real material world, while the Kremlin is building some kind of virtual reality, unable to respond in the real world,” said former Kremlin speechwriter turned analyst Abbas Galyamov.

“People understand that politics is now on the battlefield,” he added. “It is important who goes and who retreats. In this sense, the Kremlin cannot offer the Russians anything comforting.”

Russia bombarded Ukrainian cities with rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and drones, killing 25 people and injuring 50 in one strike, according to the Prosecutor General’s Office. Together, these volleys made up the strongest storm in Moscow in recent weeks.

The impact left deep craters and shrapnel tore apart the humanitarian convoy, killing its passengers. Nearby buildings were demolished. Garbage bags, blankets and, for one victim, a blood-soaked towel, covered the bodies.

Analysts say Putin is likely to dip more seriously into his dwindling stockpile of precision weapons and step up attacks as part of a strategy to escalate the war and erode Western support.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive deprived Moscow of dominance on the battlefield. Its control over the Luhansk region looks increasingly shaky as Ukrainian troops make their way there, using pincers to attack Liman. Ukraine also still has a large bridgehead in the neighboring Donetsk region.

In the capital of Zaporozhye region, anti-aircraft missiles, which Russia was repurposing as ground attack weapons, hit people waiting in cars to move to Russian-occupied territory so that they could bring family members back across the front line, said Kirill Tymoshenko, deputy head of the Presidential Administration. of Ukraine.

Officials appointed by Russia in Zaporozhye accused Ukrainian forces, but did not provide evidence.

There are also reports of Russian strikes in the city of Dnipro. Regional governor Valentin Reznichenko said that at least one person was killed and five were injured.

Ukraine’s air force said the southern cities of Mykolaiv and Odessa were hit by Iranian-supplied suicide drones, which Russia is increasingly deploying, apparently to avoid losing more pilots who do not control Ukraine’s skies.

Ukraine promised to take back all the occupied territories, and Russia promised to defend its conquests, threatening to use nuclear weapons and mobilization of an additional 300,000 troops despite protests.

This was emphasized by the battles for Liman, a key node of Russian military operations in the Donbass and the desired reward in the Ukrainian counteroffensive.

The leader of Donetsk separatists, who is supported by Russia, Denis Pushylin, said that the city is “semi-surrounded” by Ukrainian forces.

“The armed formations of Ukraine,” he told the RIA Novosti agency, “are trying very hard to spoil our holiday.”