Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said his country is submitting an “accelerated” application to join the NATO military alliance, after Russian leader Vladimir Putin proclaimed the annexation of four partially occupied Ukrainian regions.
This week, Russian proxies in the regions held referendums viewed as illegitimate by the international community.
“We are taking our decisive step by signing Ukraine’s application for accelerated accession to NATO,” Zelenskyy said on Friday.
Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from Kyiv, called this “a dramatic step from President Zelenskyy”.
Ukraine’s NATO membership has always been a red line for Russia, he said.
“Ukraine has always been considered part of Russia’s back yard and therefore sacrosanct in a way – so for Zelenskyy to do this, he knows that this is going to wind up Putin but he has taken this step because I believe he thinks there was no alternative.
“There had to be some response by the Ukrainian government to the annexation of 15 percent of its territory.”
It was not immediately clear what a fast-tracked application would mean, as accession to NATO requires the unanimous support of the alliance’s members.
The question remains as to whether NATO will welcome Ukraine in.
“There are certain criteria and one of them is that aspirant nations have to have a commitment to the peaceful resolutions to territorial disputes,” Challands said.
“Of course, we have a war going on in Ukraine. There are territorial disputes for which at the moment there is no possibility of a peaceful resolution. That’s a difficult hurdle for Ukraine to jump over. But maybe allowances will be given.”
Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has signed treaties to formally annex four regions of Ukraine, recognising them as Russian territory.
In a speech railing against the West and the global order, he called on Ukraine to come to the negotiating table ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/CTzrhb6KIz
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) September 30, 2022
During Russia’s seven-month war in the neighbouring country, Ukraine has shifted off Soviet-era weapon systems and has been using NATO-standard ordinance and weapons, though the process is still continuing.
Ukraine, Western countries and the United Nations secretary-general have denounced Putin’s move to annex the Ukrainian regions, which represents a major escalation in the war that began with Russia’s invasion on February 24.
NATO accused Putin of provoking “the most serious escalation” of the war in Ukraine since it began, but said he would not succeed in deterring the alliance from supporting Kyiv.
“We have the combination of the mobilisation in Russia, combined with the reckless, dangerous nuclear rhetoric, and then today’s illegal annexation, or attempt to annex parts of Ukraine,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Friday.
“Together this is the most serious escalation of the conflict since the start and the aim of President Putin is to deter us from supporting Ukraine. But he will not succeed in that,” he told a news conference.
Stoltenberg remained non-committal on Ukraine’s NATO accession bid.
“Our focus now is on providing immediate support to Ukraine to help Ukraine defend itself against the Russian brutal invasion,” he said.
US President Joe Biden called the annexation a “violation of international law” and said that Putin’s actions have no legitimacy. The US said it would continue to acknowledge the internationally recognised borders of Ukraine. Washington also announced a new round of sanctions against Moscow.
At a ceremony on Friday, Putin said Russia has “four new regions”, calling the residents of Ukraine’s occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia regions “our citizens forever”.
“This is the will of millions of people,” he said in the speech before hundreds of dignitaries at the St George’s Hall of the Kremlin.
In his speech, Putin sent out several messages to various target audiences, said Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Vall, who is reporting from Moscow.
“One [was] to the Russians, that this is for their interest, that this is to make Russia strong again, this is for the protection of the Russian great civilisation and great history and values, and it is for the future generations to protect Russia from the ‘bad influence’ coming from the West,” Vall said.
“The other message is addressed to the West itself, that they have to know that their plans to ‘destroy Russia’ will never succeed and that Russia will never accept to be under their tutelage.”
And the final message was for Ukraine, “to forget about the territories that have been annexed, to come to the negotiations table, probably to accept the new border that Russia has drawn”, he said.
Zelenskyy said on Friday he was still prepared to hold talks with Russia, but not as long as Putin remained president.