President Vladimir V. Putin on Friday asserted that Russia would take control of four Ukrainian regions and decried the United States for “Satanism” in a speech that marked an escalation in Moscow’s war against Ukraine and positioned Russia, in starkly confrontational terms, as fighting an existential battle with Western elites he deemed “the enemy.”
Speaking to hundreds of Russian lawmakers and governors in a grand Kremlin hall, Mr. Putin said that the residents of the four regions — which are still partially controlled by Ukrainian forces — would become Russia’s citizens “forever.” He then held a signing ceremony with the Russian-installed heads of those regions to start the official annexation process, before clasping hands with them and chanting “Russia! Russia!”
Mr. Putin’s address came against a backdrop of Russian embarrassments on the battlefield, where Ukraine’s forces have scored stunning victories in recent weeks in the east. Even as the Russian leader spoke, officials said the Ukrainian army had moved closer to encircling the Russian-occupied town of Lyman, a strategically important hub in the Donetsk region that lies inside the territory Mr. Putin is claiming.
Even by Mr. Putin’s increasingly antagonistic standards, the speech was extraordinary, a combination of bluster and menace that mixed conspiratorial riffs against the American-led “neocolonial system” with an appeal to the world to see Russia as the leader of an uprising against American power.
He referred to “the ruling circles of the so-called West” as “the enemy,” a word he rarely uses in reference to the West — and struck a tone of spiteful anger and defiance.
“Not only do Western elites deny national sovereignty and international law,” he said in the 37-minute address. “Their hegemony has a pronounced character of totalitarianism, despotism and apartheid.”
Western leaders have condemned Russia’s annexations as illegal, and the “referendums’’ that preceded them — purporting to show local support for joining Russia — as fraudulent. The Biden administration announced new sanctions in response to the Kremlin’s move.
President Biden was quick to denounce Mr. Putin’s actions to annex the four territories, saying they “have no legitimacy’’ and adding that “the United States will always honor Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders.’’
Ukraine’s government has rebuffed Mr. Putin’s claims and vowed to retake territory captured by Russia in the east and south. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky responded to Mr. Putin’s speech on Friday by announcing that he was fast-tracking his country’s application to the NATO alliance. In a video, he accused the Kremlin of trying to “steal something that does not belong to it.” “Ukraine will not allow that,” he said.
Mr. Putin insisted that Russia’s position on annexing the four territories was nonnegotiable, adding that the country would defend them “with all the forces and means at our disposal.”
“I call on the Kyiv regime to immediately cease fire and all military action,” he said, and for the Ukrainian government “to return to the negotiating table.”
“But we will not discuss the decision of the people of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson,” he went on, referring to the four Ukrainian regions being annexed. “It has been made. Russia will not betray it.”
Mr. Putin cast the conflict with the West in even more severe terms than in previous speeches, reeling off centuries of Western military actions to denounce the American-led world order as fundamentally evil, corrupt and set on Russia’s destruction.
“The repression of freedom is taking on the outlines of a ‘reverse religion,’ of real Satanism,” Mr. Putin said, asserting that liberal Western values on matters like gender identity amounted to a “denial of man.”
But Mr. Putin offered few new details on the matter that is now perhaps of greatest concern in Western capitals — whether, and at what point, he may be prepared to use weapons of mass destruction to force Ukraine to capitulate. His spokesman said earlier in the day that after the annexation of the four regions — a move that virtually no other country is expected to recognize — an attack on those regions would be treated as an attack on Russia.
Without saying so directly, Mr. Putin hinted that the role of nuclear weapons in war is on his mind. Describing the West as “deceitful and hypocritical through and through,” Mr. Putin noted that the United States was the only country to have used nuclear weapons in war. He then added: “By the way, they created a precedent.”
Valerie Hopkins and Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting.