Russia prepares to annex occupied Ukraine territory after widely derided votes
Russia was poised Wednesday to formally annex parts of Ukraine where occupied areas held Kremlin-orchestrated “referendums” — denounced by Kyiv and the West as illegal and rigged — on living under Moscow’s rule.
Armed troops had gone door to door with election officials to collect ballots in five days of voting. The results were widely ridiculed as implausible and characterized as a land grab by an increasingly cornered Russian leadership after embarrassing military losses in Ukraine.
Moscow-installed administrations in the four regions of southern and eastern Ukraine claimed Tuesday night that their residents voted to join Russia in the hastily called referendums.
“Forcing people in these territories to fill out some papers at the barrel of a gun is yet another Russian crime in the course of its aggression against Ukraine,” the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said, blasting the ballots as “a propaganda show” and “null and worthless.”
The ballot was “falsified,” and the outcome “implausibly claimed” that residents had agreed to rule from Moscow, said the Washington-based think tank Institute for the Study of War.
Pro-Kremlin officials in Ukraine’s Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions moved quickly Wednesday, saying they would ask Russian President Vladimir Putin to incorporate the provinces into Russia. It wasn’t immediately clear how the administrative process would unfold.
Officials say more than 194,000 Russians have crossed into neighboring countries since Putin announced a partial mobilization of reservists to fight in Ukraine.
According to Russia-installed election officials, 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.
Western countries dismissed the ballots as a meaningless exercise staged by Moscow in an attempt to legitimate its invasion of Ukraine, which was launched Feb. 24.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said late Tuesday that Washington would propose a U.N. Security Council resolution to condemn Russia’s “sham” vote.
The resolution would also urge member states to not recognize any altered status of Ukraine and demand that Russia withdraw its troops from its neighbor, Thomas-Greenfield tweeted.
Facebook says it has identified and stopped a sprawling network of fake accounts that spread Russian propaganda about the invasion of Ukraine.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, also weighed in on the ballots Wednesday, calling them “illegal” and describing the results as “falsified.”
“This is another violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty [and] territorial integrity, [amid] systematic abuses of human rights,” Borrell tweeted.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry’s statement asked the European Union, North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Group of 7 major industrial nations to “immediately and significantly” step up pressure on Russia through new sanctions, and significantly increase their military aid to Ukraine.
The Kremlin remained unmoved amid the hail of criticism. Its spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that at the very least Russia intended to drive Ukrainian forces out of the eastern Donetsk region, where Moscow’s troops and separatist forces control about 60% of the territory.
The president of Russia’s Oscars committee has reportedly resigned in protest of the Russian film academy’s actions.
Russia is calling up 300,000 reservists to fight in the war and warned that it could resort to nuclear weapons after this month’s counteroffensive by Ukraine dealt Moscow’s forces heavy battlefield setbacks. The partial mobilization is deeply unpopular in some areas, however, triggering protests, scattered violence and prompting Russians to flee the country by the tens of thousands.
The mobilization led the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to warn Americans in Russia to leave immediately because “Russia may refuse to acknowledge dual nationals’ U.S. citizenship, deny their access to U.S. consular assistance, prevent their departure from Russia, and conscript dual nationals for military service.” Earlier embassy security alerts also advised Americans to leave, saying they could be harassed and have difficulty obtaining consular assistance.
The EU also expressed outrage over the suspected sabotage Tuesday of two underwater natural gas pipelines from Russia to Germany and warned of retaliation for any attack on Europe’s energy networks.
Borrell said Wednesday that “all available information indicates those leaks are the result of a deliberate act,” even though the perpetrators haven’t so far been identified.
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“Any deliberate disruption of European energy infrastructure is utterly unacceptable and will be met with a robust and united response,” he said in a statement on behalf of the EU’s 27 member countries.
Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said allegations that Russia could be behind the incidents were “predictable and stupid.”
He told reporters in a conference call that the damage had caused Russia huge economic losses.
The war in Ukraine has led to an energy standoff between Moscow and the EU, many of whose members have for years relied heavily on Russian natural gas supplies.
The damage makes it unlikely the pipelines will be able to supply any gas to Europe this winter, according to analysts.
Izyum has had no gas, electricity, running water or internet since March. Officials urged residents who had left not to return.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s military and Western analysts said Wednesday that Russia is sending troops without any training to the front line.
In a daily briefing, the Ukrainian military’s general staff said the 1st Tank Regiment of the 2nd Motorized Rifle Division of Russia’s 1st Tank Army has received untrained new troops.
The Ukrainian military also said convicts were arriving in Ukraine to reinforce Russian lines. It offered no evidence to support the claim, though the Ukrainian security services have released audio of allegedly monitored Russian phone conversations on the issue.
The Institute for the Study of War cited an online video by a man who identified himself as a member of the 1st Tank Regiment, visibly upset, saying that he and his colleagues wouldn’t receive training before shipping out to the Russian-occupied region of Kherson in Ukraine.
Tymophiy, 12, lost his mother and stepfather in a hail of Russian fire and is now in the care of relatives. His diary is a record of fury and grief.
“Mobilized men with a day or two of training are unlikely to meaningfully reinforce Russian positions affected by Ukrainian counteroffensives in the south and east,” the institute said.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense said Ukraine’s counteroffensive, which has inflicted some humiliating defeats on Moscow’s forces, is advancing slowly. It said Russia is putting up stouter resistance.
In the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk, which is partially occupied by Moscow, Russian fire killed five people and wounded 10 over the last 24 hours, said Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of the local military authority.
Authorities in Nikopol said Russian rockets and artillery pounded the southern city overnight.
The city, across the Dnipro River from Russian-occupied territory, saw 10 high-rises and private buildings hit, as well as a school, power lines and other areas, said Valentyn Reznichenko, the head of the local military administration.
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