BRUSSELS, 1 Oct 2022:
NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg yesterday said Russia’s illegal annexation of four eastern Ukrainian territories – mostly occupied by Russian troops – “will not change” the commitment of the Atlantic Alliance to support Kyiv.
At a press conference, Stoltenberg said Russia’s move was the largest annexation of European territory by force since World War II – constituting 15% of the territory of Ukraine, an area approximately the size of Portugal.
Russian president Vladimir Putin had announced the incorporation into Russia of the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson following referendums in the occupied territories – which many Western leaders have called “sham” votes without any legal basis.
“Putin has mobilised hundreds of thousands of more troops, engaged in irresponsible nuclear sabre-rattling and now illegally annexed more Ukrainian territory,” Stoltenberg said at the press conference.
“Together, this represents the most serious escalation since the start of the war,” he added, going on to say that “NATO reaffirms its unwavering support for Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
He also said the NATO allies remain committed to providing support to Ukraine as it defends itself against Russian aggression for “as long as necessary” despite stating that NATO is not directly involved in the war.
The top NATO official emphasised that alliance partners do not and will not recognise any of the Ukrainian territories as belonging to Russia.
He said the war launched by Moscow against Kyiv is at a “critical” moment due to Putin’s “dangerous” nuclear rhetoric and the Russian leader’s mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of additional troops, which he called “the most serious escalation since the start” of the conflict on Feb 24.
“None of this shows strength. It shows weakness,” said Stoltenberg, describing the purported annexation as an acknowledgment that the war is not going according to plan and that it has failed to achieve its strategic objectives.
Stoltenberg also commented on yesterday’s announcement by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy that his country will file an urgent request to be admitted to NATO.
He said all democratic countries in Europe have the right to ask to be admitted to the Atlantic Alliance, although he made clear that decision to admit them must be taken by the 30 current members of the organisation.
He further said Europe must continue supporting Ukraine because “inaction is a great risk” since it would demonstrate to Putin that he can use military force to establish a “sphere of influence” with impunity.
“Russia must understand that a nuclear war can never be won and must never be waged,” said the NATO chief, while going on to warn Moscow that it faces serious consequences if it were to use nuclear weapons.
Putin has threatened to potentially respond with nuclear weapons if territory that he now claims to be part of Russia is attacked. In response to that threat, the Norwegian politician stressed if Russia’s annexation is accepted and nuclear sabre-rattling is allowed to “stop you from helping Ukraine, then you accept nuclear blackmail.”
Allowing Putin to win in Ukraine would increase the long-term risks for everyone, he said, stressing this is why NATO is currently paying the costs of supporting Ukraine.
With regard to the several recent leaks in the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines under the Baltic Sea which transport Russian natural gas to Europe, leaks which the Atlantic Alliance has declared to have been caused by sabotage, Stoltenberg noted the organisation has deployed vessels and aircraft in the Baltic and the North Sea to “send a message” about NATO’s preparation to protect and defend one another and “critical infrastructure.”
In announcing the annexation yesterday, Putin called a “liberating mission.”
Putin was joined by the Russian-installed leaders of the regions in question – Donetsk and Luhansk, swathes of which have been under de facto separatist rule since 2014 as well as Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, partially occupied by Russia since the invasion this year.
“The USSR no longer exists, and the past will not return,” Putin said in his speech leading up to the treaty-signing ceremony. “And Russia doesn’t need it, but there is nothing stronger than the determination of these people to return to their true historical homeland.”
“They will be Russian citizens forever,” he added to applause from the crowd, claiming that Moscow was acting in accordance with the UN charter on the right to self-determination.
After signing the decrees along with the Russian-backed leaders of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin; Luhansk, Leonid Pasechnik; Kherson, Vladimir Saldo and Zaporizhzhia, Yevhen Balytskyi, the national anthem was played. Putin and the four collaborationist leaders chanted “Russia, Russia, Russia.”
This is the second time Russia has annexed Ukrainian territory in the last eight years after its takeover of Crimea in 2014, which followed the same blueprint involving a referendum shunned by the international community.
None of the four regions absorbed by Russia yesterday are fully under Moscow’s control and fighting with Ukrainian forces is ongoing.