Russian President Vladimir Putin will annex four occupied regions of Ukraine on Friday, following staged referendums in which, Moscow claims, Ukrainians in those areas voted to join Russia.
Mr. Putin issued decrees on Thursday recognizing the independence of two of the regions, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, in Ukraine’s southeast. In February, shortly before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he signed similar decrees relating to the other two regions, the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk.
The referendums, which ended on Tuesday, were carried out under tightly controlled conditions, with armed men forcing residents to vote. Although the votes have been widely denounced as shams, they are a signal that Mr. Putin is not giving up on his war. Russia has said it will defend any newly annexed land as its own, potentially with nuclear weapons. Moscow has recently mobilized hundreds of thousands of reservists, and is also conscripting Ukrainian men within the occupied regions to fight against their own country.
But the mobilization has caused anger and unrest within Russia, with men fleeing the country to avoid being drafted. On Thursday, Mr. Putin appeared on Russian state television, where, during a videoconference with his security council, he acknowledged what he called “mistakes” in the way the call-up has been managed. In a rare admission of fault, Mr. Putin said the draft has raised “many questions,” and described instances in which people who were entitled to deferments were pressed into military service improperly.
“If a mistake is made, I repeat, it must be corrected,” he said. “Those who were called up without proper reason should be returned home.”
The taking of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions is all but certain to lead to a dramatic escalation of the war in Ukraine. The move will be formalized during a ceremony in the Kremlin’s St. George’s Hall, according to Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for Mr. Putin. Mr. Peskov told reporters on Thursday that Russian-installed officials from the four regions will sign agreements with Moscow. Mr. Putin will deliver a speech.
Russia called the referendums shortly after a counteroffensive in which Ukrainian forces liberated towns and villages across Kharkiv. The process resembles Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, which also involved a carefully orchestrated referendum and was followed by a speech.
Still, Ukrainian troops were moving to capture the Russian-held eastern town of Lyman on Thursday – yet another setback for Russia’s campaign in the Donbas region, which includes Donetsk and Luhansk.
Western leaders denounced the annexations, the latest of several rounds of international condemnation since the referendum process began.
“In this moment of peril, I must underscore my duty as Secretary-General to uphold the UN Charter,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wrote on Twitter Thursday.
“The Charter is clear. Any annexation of a State’s territory by another State resulting from the threat or use of force is a violation of the Principles of the Charter and international law.” Mr. Guterres told reporters that “any decision to proceed with the annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine would have no legal value and deserves to be condemned.”
Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky, whose country holds the European Union presidency, said: “We reject such one-sided annexation based on a fully falsified process with no legitimacy.” He insisted that the regions remain Ukrainian territory.
At home, Russia is celebrating the pending annexations. In Moscow, a concert will be held on Friday in Red Square, where giant video screens have already been set up. Billboards there say “Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson – Russia!”
Several Ukrainians fleeing the occupied territories told The Globe and Mail about the voting process during the referendums. They said armed men went door to door and told residents to cast ballots in favour of annexation. They added that they knew they had to leave their homes when they heard about the votes. Men, in particular, feared being conscripted into Russia’s war effort. Some said they were confident that the areas would remain Ukrainian territory, and that they would eventually return home.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will hold an emergency meeting on Friday with his security council. In a statement on Thursday, he promised a robust response to the referendums, which he said have put an end to any chances of reviving peace talks.
The votes “are worthless and do not change reality,” he said. “The territorial integrity of Ukraine will be restored. And our reaction to recognition of the results by Russia will be very harsh.”
Peter Zalmayev, director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, said he expects Mr. Putin to follow the Crimea scenario: Proclaim the occupied territories Russian territory and “once again repeat his, essentially, nuclear blackmail.”
Russia will try to normalize a new, stepped up “campaign of terror” against Ukraine, Mr. Zalmayev added. “I expect Ukraine’s counteroffensive to continue.”
While Moscow cemented plans to take Ukrainian territory, it continued to attack Ukrainian targets. A missile strike in the central-eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro early Thursday morning killed two adults and two children in a residential neighbourhood.
One of the Russian missiles crashed into Anna Novostroynaya’s neighbour’s home around 1 a.m. “Over there, there was a family with two children, and they’re gone,” Ms. Novostroynaya said, standing amidst shattered glass and debris. She said it was a miracle her five-year-old daughter had been in bed with her and her husband at the back of their home, where they were protected from the blast.
Across the road, a massive crater was all that remained where Ms. Novostroynaya’s neighbour’s home stood the night before. “All of the victims are from the same house,” said Ihor Hetalo, commander of the local fire team.
Mr. Hetalo said the Russian missile was the second of two that had struck Dnipro on Thursday. The first hit a nearby market behind a bus station. Sixty-one homes were damaged and four were completely destroyed, he added.
“I’m very afraid. … It’s our house. Why did Russia do it?” Ms. Novostroynaya asked, gesturing to a birthday balloon that had lingered a little past her daughter’s fifth birthday. The windows in their home shattered in the attack, and parts of their kitchen ceiling were torn apart. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust and debris.
Across the street, Sergey and Natalia Klymenko were surveying the damage. When the strike at the market happened, Sergey went to a window in their home to get cigarettes – and was swiftly thrown back by the second, closer blast.
“I don’t know what is going on here. You see there are no military bases here. Nothing. Just a private residential area. There’s nothing that even looks military,” he said. “Click-click, and everything is gone.
“It’s my parents’ house. I lived here for 25 years. It’s a calm and boring place. … Now they’re sending rockets to private residential area and no one knows why.”
With reports from the New York Times and Reuters.