Russia plans to annex four partially occupied regions of Ukraine on Friday that amount to about 15 per cent of the embattled country’s territory, in the biggest violent seizure of land in Europe since the second World War.
The Kremlin announced that Russian president Vladimir Putin would make a speech and oversee “the signing of agreements on the entry of new territories into the Russian Federation” by officials installed by Moscow to run occupied areas of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in eastern and southeastern Ukraine.
The Moscow appointees in the four areas staged “referendums” on joining Russia and claimed that huge majorities backed annexation, even as Ukraine, the West and top United Nations officials denounced a “sham” process that breaches international law.
“Any decision to proceed with the annexation… would have no legal value and deserves to be condemned,” said UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, describing Russia’s move as “a dangerous escalation” that “has no place in the modern world”.
The so-called referendums “cannot be called a genuine expression of the popular will”, he added, warning that “any decision by Russia to go forwards will further jeopardise the prospects for peace”.
Russia hastily arranged the votes and launched the chaotic mobilisation of 300,000 additional troops, as it tries to cement its hold over occupied areas in the face of a counterattack by Ukrainian forces which liberated the eastern Kharkiv region this month.
‘Kremlin freak show’
Kyiv and its allies have said they will never accept the annexation – which comes eight years after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine – and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy called a meeting of his national security and defence council for Friday.
Ukraine says its drive to liberate all its territory will not be slowed by any Russian declarations, and Kyiv’s military is building on its success in Kharkiv region to push south into neighbouring Donetsk province, where it hopes to oust Russian troops from the strategic town and transport junction of Lyman in the coming days.
As a stage and giant video screens were erected on Moscow’s Red Square for a concert to mark the annexation, Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Mr Zelenskiy, urged people to ignore what he called the “Kremlin freak show”.
“Do not waste time on the virtual [Russian] agenda. Real life will be more interesting: counteroffensive, de-occupation, tribunal,” he wrote on Twitter, repeating Ukraine’s pledge to bring Moscow’s political and military leaders to justice after winning the war.
Russia’s two houses of parliament are scheduled to rubber stamp the annexation when they convene next Monday and Tuesday, and Moscow has warned that it will then be prepared to defend the occupied territories with its entire military arsenal – including, potentially, nuclear weapons.