KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia on Friday will formally annex occupied parts of Ukraine where it held Kremlin-orchestrated “referendums” in which it claimed that residents had voted overwhelmingly to live under Moscow’s rule. The Ukrainian government and the West have denounced the ballots as illegal, forced and rigged.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend a ceremony Friday in the Kremlin when four regions of Ukraine — Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — will be officially folded into Russia, spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Thursday.
Peskov said the pro-Moscow administrators of those regions will sign treaties to join Russia during the ceremony at the Kremlin’s St. George’s Hall. The official annexation was widely expected following the votes that wrapped up on Tuesday in the areas under Russian occupation in Ukraine.
The Kremlin’s announcement was met with swift rejection from European officials.
“It’s absolutely unacceptable,” said Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky, whose country currently holds the European Union presidency. “We reject such one-sided annexation based on a fully falsified process with no legitimacy.”
Lipavsky described the pro-Russia referendums as “theater play” and insisted the regions remain “Ukrainian territory.”
Other officials who denounced Russia on Thursday over the “sham” votes included the prime ministers of Italy and Denmark and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.
“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.”
Armed Russian troops had gone door-to-door with election officials to collect ballots in five days of voting. The suspiciously high margins in favor are being characterized by the West as a land grab by an increasingly cornered Russian leadership after Russian troops faced some embarrassing military losses in Ukraine.
Moscow-installed administrations in the four regions of southern and eastern Ukraine claimed Tuesday night that 93 percent of the ballots cast in the Zaporizhzhia region supported annexation, as did 87 percent in Kherson, 98 percent in Luhansk and 99 percent in Donetsk.
Ukraine too has dismissed the referendums as illegitimate, saying it has every right to retake those territories, a position that has won support from Washington.
The Kremlin has been unmoved by the criticism. After a counteroffensive by Ukraine this month dealt Moscow’s forces heavy battlefield setbacks, Russia said it would call up 300,000 reservists to join the fight. It also warned it could resort to nuclear weapons. In response, tens of thousands of Russian men have sought to leave the country.
On the battlefront Thursday, Ukrainian authorities said Russian shelling killed at least eight civilians, including a child, and wounded scores of others. A 12-year-old girl was pulled alive out of rubble after an attack on Dnipro, officials said.
“The rescuers have taken her from under the rubble, she was asleep when the Russian missile hit,” said local administrator Valentyn Reznichenko.
A Russian rocket attack on Kramatorsk, a city in the eastern Donetsk region still held by Ukraine, wounded 11 people and inflicted damage on the city, Mayor Oleksandr Honcharenko said.
Reports of new shelling came as Russia appeared to lose more ground around the key northeastern city of Lyman, which is coming as the Russian military is struggling with a chaotic mobilization of troops and trying to prevent fighting-age men from leaving the country, according to a Washington-based think-tank and the British intelligence reports.
The Institute for the Study of War, citing Russian reports, said Ukrainian forces have taken more villages around Lyman, a city 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. 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.
British military intelligence claimed the number of Russian military-age men fleeing the country likely exceeds the number of forces that Moscow used to initially invade Ukraine in February.
“The better off and well educated are over-represented amongst those attempting to leave Russia,” the British said. “When combined with those reservists who are being mobilized, the domestic economic impact of reduced availability of labor and the acceleration of ‘brain drain’ is likely to become increasingly significant.”
Russia’s partial mobilization has been deeply unpopular in some areas, however, triggering protests and scattered violence. Russian men have formed miles-long lines trying to leave at some borders and Moscow also reportedly has set up draft offices at its borders to intercept some of those fleeing.
On the subject of sabotage that has hit Russian gas pipelines to Europe this week, Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, claimed Thursday that the Nord Stream pipeline accidents would have been impossible without a government’s involvement.
“It looks like a terror attack, probably conducted on a state level,” Peskov told reporters. “It’s a very dangerous situation that requires a quick investigation.”
He dismissed media reports about Russian warships spotted in the area as “stupid and biased,” claiming that many more NATO aircraft and ships “have been spotted in the area.”
European officials have noted that Russia benefits from higher gas prices when supplies to Europe are disrupted.