Russia confirmed on Thursday that it will formally annex four regions of Ukraine, amounting to 15% of the war-torn neighboring country, after declaring victory in Kremlin-backed sham referendums.
Moscow-installed administrations in the four regions of southern and eastern Ukraine claimed Tuesday night that 93% of the ballots cast in the Zaporizhzhia region supported annexation, as did 87% in the Kherson region, 98% in the Luhansk region and 99% in Donetsk.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend a ceremony on Friday in the Kremlin where the four regions will be officially folded into Russia, spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
On Moscow’s Red Square, a stage with giant video screens has been set up, with billboards proclaiming “Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson – Russia!”
Peskov said the pro-Moscow administrators of the regions will sign treaties to join Russia during the ceremony at the Kremlin’s St. George’s Hall.
The head of the upper house of the Russian parliament said it could consider the incorporation of the four partially occupied regions on Oct. 4, three days before Putin’s 70th birthday.
To annex the territories, which represent about 15% of Ukraine, some sort of treaty will need to be struck and ratified by the Russian parliament, which is controlled by Putin allies. The areas will then be seen as part of Russia and its nuclear umbrella will extend to them.
Putin has warned he would use nuclear weapons to protect Russian territory from attack.
Residents who escaped to Ukrainian-held areas in recent days have claimed people are being forced to mark ballots in the street by roving officials at gunpoint. Footage filmed during the exercise showed Russian-installed officials taking ballot boxes from house to house with armed men in tow.
“They can announce anything they want. Nobody voted in the referendum except a few people who switched sides. They went from house to house but nobody came out,” said Lyubomir Boyko, 43, from Golo Pristan, a village in Russian-occupied Kherson province.
Russia says voting was voluntary, in line with international law, and that turnout was high.
The US and its Western allies have sharply condemned the votes as “sham” and vowed never to recognize their results.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Thursday joined other Western officials in denouncing the referendums.
“Under threats and sometimes even (at) gunpoint people are being taken out of their homes or workplaces to vote in glass ballot boxes,” she said at a conference in Berlin.
“This is the opposite of free and fair elections,” Baerbock said. “And this is the opposite of peace. It’s dictated peace. As long as this Russian diktat prevails in the occupied territories of Ukraine, no citizen is safe. No citizen is free.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sought to rally international support against annexation in a series of calls with foreign leaders, including those of Britain, Canada, Germany and Turkey.
“Thank you all for your clear and unequivocal support. Thank you all for understanding our position,” Zelenskiy said in a late-night video address.
Russia has been unmoved by the world’s criticism. It announced last week that it will mobilize some 300,000 reservists to bolster its forces in Ukraine. The conscription drive has sent tens of thousands of Russian men fleeing to other countries.
The British military intelligence report claimed the number of Russian military-age men escaping into neighboring countries likely exceeds the number of forces Moscow used to initially invade Ukraine in February.
The annexation announcement was made as Moscow’s forces struck central Ukraine with cruise missiles, damaging civilian infrastructure and killing at least eight residents — including a child.
Valentyn Reznichenko, governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, said three people were killed in Russian shelling of Dnipro, the region’s capital, including a 12-year-old girl, and that more than 60 buildings were damaged.
“The rescuers carried her out of the damaged house where was just sleeping when a Russian missile hit,” he said on his Telegram channel.
The attack also destroyed dozens of private homes and apartment buildings, a bus station and a market.
In the Donetsk region, where the governor said six civilians were killed on Wednesday, Ukraine and Russian forces engaged in heavy fighting.
Over the past 24 hours, Russia launched three missiles and eight air strikes, carrying out more than 82 attacks from rocket salvo systems on military and civilian sites, Ukraine’s military said early on Thursday.
Ukraine’s air force carried out 16 strikes on Wednesday, damaging or destroying a number of Russian positions, while ground forces destroyed two command posts, it said.
Kyiv’s forces continued to tighten their grip on the key strategic city of Lyman in northern Donetsk.
The Institute for the Study of War, citing Russian reports, said Ukrainian forces have taken more villages around Lyman. The report said Ukrainian forces may soon encircle Lyman entirely, in what would be a major blow to Moscow’s war effort.
“The collapse of the Lyman pocket will likely be highly consequential to the Russian grouping in northern Donetsk and western Luhansk oblasts and may allow Ukrainian troops to threaten Russian positions along the western Luhansk” region, the institute said.
In the Kharkiv region, most of which was liberated in Kyiv’s lightning counteroffensive two weeks ago, Ukrainian forces gained even more ground east of the Oskil River, reclaiming the town of Kovsharivka.
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