Kremlin says 4 regions of Ukraine will be merged into Russia on Friday

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia confirmed Thursday that it will officially annex parts of Ukraine where occupied areas have held Kremlin-orchestrated “referendums” on life under Moscow rule that the Ukrainian government and the West have denounced as illegal and rigged.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend a ceremony at the Kremlin on Friday in which four regions of Ukraine will officially become part of Russia, spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Peskov said the regions’ pro-Moscow administrators will sign treaties to join Russia during the ceremony at St. George’s Hall in the Kremlin.

The formal annexation was widely expected following votes that ended Tuesday in Russian-occupied areas in Ukraine and after Moscow said residents had overwhelming support for their areas to officially become part of Russia.

The United States and its Western allies strongly condemned the votes as “fictitious” and vowed never to recognize their results. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock joined other Western officials on Thursday in denouncing the votes.

“Under threat and sometimes even (at gunpoint) people are taken out of their homes or places of work to vote in glass ballot boxes,” she said during a conference in Berlin.

“It’s the opposite of free and fair elections,” Baerbock said. “And that is the opposite of peace. It is peace dictated. As long as this Russian diktat prevails in the occupied territories of Ukraine, no citizen is immune. No citizen is free.

Armed troops had gone door to door with election officials to collect ballots in five days of voting. The oddly high margins in favor have been branded a land grab by Russian leaders increasingly cornered after embarrassing military losses in Ukraine.

Moscow-based administrations in the four regions of southern and eastern Ukraine said on Tuesday evening that 93% of the votes cast in the Zaporizhzhia region supported annexation, as did 87% in the Kherson region, 98% in the Luhansk region and 99% in Donetsk. .

Ukraine has also dismissed the referendums as illegitimate, saying it has every right to take back the territories, a position that has won support from Washington.

The Kremlin was unaffected by the criticism. After a counteroffensive by Ukraine this month caused heavy setbacks for Moscow’s forces on the battlefield, Russia said it would call up 300,000 reservists to join the fight. He also warned that he might resort to nuclear weapons.

Also on Thursday, Ukrainian authorities said Russian shelling had killed at least eight civilians, including a child, and injured dozens more. A 12-year-old girl was pulled from the rubble after an attack on Dnipro, officials said.

“The rescuers pulled her out from under the rubble, she was sleeping when the Russian missile hit,” local administrator Valentyn Reznichenko said.

Reports of further shelling came as Russia appeared to continue to lose ground around a key town in northeast Lyman as it struggled to continue a chaotic troop mobilization and prevent the men of fighting age to leave the country, according to a Washington-based study. -tank and British intelligence reports.

The Institute for the Study of War, citing Russian reports, said Ukrainian forces had taken more villages around Lyman, a town about 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine. The report said Ukrainian forces could soon completely encircle Lyman, which would be a blow to Moscow’s war effort.

“The collapse of the Lyman pocket is likely to have significant consequences for the Russian grouping in the northern Donetsk and western Luhansk oblasts and could allow Ukrainian troops to threaten Russian positions along the western region of Luhansk,” the institute said.

The British military intelligence report claimed that the number of military-age Russian men fleeing the country likely exceeds the number of forces Moscow used to initially invade Ukraine in February.

“The wealthiest and best educated are overrepresented among those trying to leave Russia,” the Brits said. “When combined with reservists who are called up, the national economic impact of reduced labor availability and accelerating ‘brain drain’ is likely to become increasingly significant. “

This partial mobilization is, however, deeply unpopular in some regions, triggering demonstrations, scattered violence and Russians fleeing the country by the tens of thousands. Lines of several kilometers have formed at some borders and Moscow is also said to have set up recruitment offices at the borders to intercept some of those trying to leave.




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