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Kremlin paves way to annex large parts of Ukraine

Men in winter coats, some with luggage, walk on a sidewalk
Russians cross the border into Georgia on Tuesday, days after President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization to bolster troops in Ukraine.
(Zurab Tsertsvadze / Associated Press)

The Kremlin paved the way Tuesday to annex part of Ukraine and escalate the war by announcing that residents of a large swath overwhelmingly supported joining with Russia in stage-managed referendums that the U.S. and its Western allies have dismissed as illegitimate.

Pro-Moscow officials said three of the four occupied regions of Ukraine voted to join Russia. According to Russia-installed election officials, 93% of the ballots cast in the Zaporizhzhia region supported annexation, as did 87% in the southern Kherson region and 98% in Luhansk.

Results from the Donetsk region were expected later Tuesday.

In a remark that appeared to rule out negotiations, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky told the U.N. Security Council by video from Kyiv that Russia’s attempts to annex Ukrainian territory will mean “there is nothing to talk about with this president of Russia.”

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The preordained outcome sets the stage for a dangerous new phase in Russia’s seven-month war, with the Kremlin threatening to throw more troops into the battle and potentially use nuclear weapons.

The referendums in the Luhansk and Kherson regions and parts of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia began Sept. 23, often with armed officials going door to door collecting votes. The ballots asked residents whether they wanted the areas to be incorporated into Russia.

Moscow-backed officials in the four occupied regions in southern and eastern Ukraine said polls closed Tuesday afternoon after five days of voting.

Officials say more than 194,000 Russians have crossed into neighboring countries since Putin announced a partial mobilization of reservists to fight in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to address Russia’s parliament about the referendums on Friday, and Valentina Matviyenko, who chairs the body’s upper house, said lawmakers could consider annexation legislation on Oct. 4.

Meanwhile, Russia ramped up warnings that it could deploy nuclear weapons to defend its territory, including newly acquired lands, and continued mobilizing more than a quarter-million more troops to deploy to a front line of more than 620 miles.

After the balloting, “the situation will radically change from the legal viewpoint, from the point of view of international law, with all the corresponding consequences for protection of those areas and ensuring their security,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday.

Many Western leaders have called the referendum a sham, and the U.N. Security Council was scheduled to meet later Tuesday in New York to discuss a resolution that says the voting results will never be accepted and that the four regions remain part of Ukraine. Russia is certain to veto the resolution.

The balloting and a call-up of Russian military reservists that Putin ordered last Wednesday are aimed at buttressing Moscow’s exposed military and political positions.

The Kremlin is trying to mobilize hundreds of thousands of men to help it continue prosecuting the war in Ukraine, but resistance has erupted.

The referendums follow a familiar Kremlin playbook for territorial expansion and more aggressive military action. In 2014, Russian authorities held a similar referendum on Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, under the close watch of Russian troops. Based on the voting, Russia annexed Crimea. Putin cited the defense of Russians living in Ukraine’s eastern regions, their supposed desires to join with Russia, and an existential security threat to Russia as a pretext for his Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.

Putin has been talking up Moscow’s nuclear option since Ukrainians launched a counteroffensive that reclaimed territory and has increasingly cornered his forces. A top Putin aide ratcheted up the nuclear rhetoric Tuesday.

The onset of autumnal weather is making fields too muddy for tanks and beginning to cloud Ukrainian efforts to take back more Russian-held territory.

“Let’s imagine that Russia is forced to use the most powerful weapon against the Ukrainian regime that has committed a large-scale act of aggression, which is dangerous for the very existence of our state,” Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of the Russian Security Council that Putin chairs, wrote on his messaging app channel. “I believe that NATO will steer clear from direct meddling in the conflict in that case.”

The U.S. has dismissed the Kremlin’s nuclear talk as scare tactics.

The referendums ask residents whether they want to become part of Russia, and the Kremlin has portrayed them as free and fair, reflective of the people’s desire for self-determination.

Tens of thousands of residents had already fled the regions amid the war, and images shared by those who remained showed armed Russian troops going door to door to pressure Ukrainians into voting.

Russia is escalating its military and political campaign to take over Ukrainian territory.

Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko, who left the port city after the Russians finally seized it following a months-long siege, said only about 20% of the 100,000 estimated remaining residents cast ballots in the Donetsk referendum. Mariupol had a prewar population of 541,000.

“A man toting an assault rifle comes to your home and asks you to vote, so what can people do?” Boychenko said during a news conference, explaining how people were coerced into voting.

Western allies are standing firm with Ukraine, dismissing the referendums as a meaningless sham.

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said the ballots were “a desperate move” by Putin. French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said while visiting Kyiv on Tuesday that France was determined “to support Ukraine and its sovereignty and territorial integrity” and described the ballots as “mock referendums.”

Elsewhere, trouble emerged for Putin in the mass call-up he ordered of Russians to active military duty.

The order has triggered an exodus of nearly 200,000 men from Russia, fueled antiwar protests and sparked violence. On Monday, a gunman opened fire in a military enlistment office in a Siberian city, gravely wounding the local chief recruitment officer. The shooting came after scattered arson attacks on enlistment offices.

One destination of fleeing Russian men is Kazakhstan, which reported Tuesday that about 98,000 Russians have crossed into Kazakhstan over the past week.

The European Union’s border and coast guard agency says 66,000 Russian citizens entered the 27-nation bloc from Sept. 19 to 25, a 30% increase over the preceding week.

Russian officials tried to intercept some of the fleeing reservists on one of the main exodus routes, issuing conscription notices on the Georgian border. According to the state-run agency Tass, an enlistment task force was handing out notices at the Verkhnii Lars checkpoint, where an estimated 5,500 cars were lining up to cross. Independent Russian news sources have reported unconfirmed claims that draft-age men will be banned from leaving after the referendum.

At the risk of being branded a traitor, pop singer Alla Pugacheva has become the most prominent Russian celebrity to question the war in Ukraine.

As Moscow works to build up its troops in Ukraine, potentially sending them to supplement its proxies who have been fighting in the separatist regions for the past eight years, Russian shelling continued to claim lives. At least 11 civilians were killed and 18 others wounded by Russian barrages in 24 hours, Ukraine’s presidential office said Tuesday.

In other developments, Ukrainian authorities reported more success in their counteroffensive to reclaim territory in some of the very regions where Russia is staging the referendums to consolidate its grip.

Ukrainian troops claimed to continue their push beyond the Oskil River in the country’s east, pressing further into the Donbas. A video on social media Tuesday showed Ukrainian soldiers entering the village of Koroviy Yar, about nine miles from the river. Ukraine’s military intelligence said that the country’s forces continued to force Russian troops out of the northeastern Kharkiv region and claimed to recapture the major railway junction of Kupyansk-Vuzlovyi.

The war’s human toll was also reflected in a U.N. human rights monitoring mission’s first comprehensive look at violations and abuses Russia and Ukraine committed between Feb. 1 and July 31, the first five months of Russia’s invasion.

Matilda Bogner, the mission’s chief, said Ukrainian prisoners of war appeared to have faced “systematic” mistreatment, “not only upon their capture, but also following their transfer to places of internment” in Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine and Russia itself.

Ukrainian authorities begin recovering bodies from a newly found mass burial site in a forest recaptured from Russian forces.

The war has brought an energy crunch for much of Western Europe, with German officials viewing the disruption of Russian supplies as a power play by the Kremlin to pressure Europe over its support for Ukraine.

The danger to energy supplies grew when seismologists reported Tuesday that explosions rattled the Baltic Sea before unusual leaks were discovered on two underwater natural gas pipelines running from Russia to Germany. Some European leaders and experts pointed to possible sabotage during an energy standoff with Russia provoked by the war in Ukraine. The three leaks were reported on the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, which are filled with natural gas but not delivering the fuel to Europe.

After decades of neglect and the stigma of its Nazi past, Germany warms up to the idea of rebuilding its army, thanks to the war in Ukraine.

The extent of the damage means that the pipelines are unlikely to be able to carry any gas to Europe this winter even if there were the political will to bring them online, analysts at the Eurasia Group said.


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