By JON GAMBRELL and ADAM SCHRECK
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia on Friday will formally annex parts of Ukraine where separation “referendums” received approval, the Kremlin’s spokesman said, confirming the expectations of Ukrainian and Western officials who have denounced the Moscow-managed votes as illegal, forced and rigged.
Four regions of Ukraine — Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — will be folded into Russia during a Kremlin ceremony attended by President Vladimir Putin, spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Thursday.
Peskov said the pro-Moscow administrators of those regions would sign treaties to join Russia during the ceremony at the Kremlin’s St. George’s Hall. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called an emergency meeting of the National Security and Defense Council for Friday, apparently in response to the Russian move.
The official annexation was widely expected following the votes that wrapped up Tuesday in the areas under Russian occupation and the administration of Moscow-installed officials. Ukraine’s supporters in the West have described the stage-managed referendums on living under Russian rule as a bald-faced land grab based on lies.
“It’s absolutely unacceptable,” said Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky, whose country currently holds the European Union presidency. “We reject such one-sided annexation based on a fully falsified process with no legitimacy.”
Lipavsky described the pro-Russia referendums as “theater play” and insisted the regions remain “Ukrainian territory.”
Armed Russian troops at went door-to-door with election officials to collect ballots in five days of voting that produced suspiciously high margins in favor of joining Russia. Ukrainian officials said the military escorts also took down the names of residents who voted against annexation.
Moscow-installed administrations in the four regions of southern and eastern Ukraine claimed Tuesday night that 93% of the ballots cast in the Zaporizhzhia region supported annexation, as did 87% in Kherson, 98% in Luhansk and 99% in Donetsk.
“Under threats and sometimes even (at) gunpoint, people are being taken out of their homes or workplaces to vote in glass ballot boxes,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said at a conference in Berlin.
“This is the opposite of free and fair elections,” Baerbock said. “And this is the opposite of peace. It’s dictated peace. As long as this Russian diktat prevails in the occupied territories of Ukraine, no citizen is safe. No citizen is free.”
The votes and the Kremlin’s quick move to incorporate territory seized during Russia’s war in Ukraine came after a Ukrainian counteroffensive this month dealt Moscow’s forces heavy battlefield setbacks.
Putin last week ordered a troop mobilization that the Russian defense minister said would put 300,000 reservists into active military duty. In response, tens of thousands of Russian men have left the country. Putin and other Russian officials also have threatened to resort to nuclear weapons to protect Russian territory, including any annexed land.
On the battlefront Thursday, Ukrainian authorities said Russian shelling killed at least eight civilians in the past 24 hours, including a child, and wounded scores of others. A 12-year-old girl was pulled alive out of rubble after an attack on Dnipro, officials said.
“The rescuers have taken her from under the rubble, she was asleep when the Russian missile hit,” said local administrator Valentyn Reznichenko.
A Russian rocket attack on Kramatorsk, a city in the eastern Donetsk region still held by Ukraine, wounded 11 people and inflicted damage on the city, Mayor Oleksandr Honcharenko said.
More fighting near the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant – Europe’s biggest – was another source of concern. Russian forces occupy the plant, which is Europe’s biggest nuclear power station, but Ukrainian technicians still are running it.
A suspected landmine explosion on the perimeter fence Thursday that was likely triggered by wild animals damaged electrical lines, according to Ukraine’s national atomic power agency, Energoatom.
Reports of new shelling came as Russia appeared to lose more ground around the northeastern city of Lyman. The Russian military is struggling with a chaotic mobilization of troops and trying to prevent fighting-age men from leaving the country, according to a Washington-based think-tank and the British intelligence reports.
The Institute for the Study of War, citing Russian reports, said Ukrainian forces have taken more villages around Lyman, a city 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. The report said Ukrainian forces may soon encircle Lyman entirely, in what would be a major blow to Moscow’s war effort.
“The collapse of the Lyman pocket will likely be highly consequential to the Russian grouping in northern Donetsk and western Luhansk oblasts and may allow Ukrainian troops to threaten Russian positions along the western Luhansk” region, the institute said.
British military intelligence claimed the number of Russian military-age men fleeing the country likely exceeds the number of forces that Moscow used to initially invade Ukraine in February.
“The better off and well educated are over-represented amongst those attempting to leave Russia,” the British said. “When combined with those reservists who are being mobilized, the domestic economic impact of reduced availability of labor and the acceleration of ‘brain drain’ is likely to become increasingly significant.”
Russia’s partial mobilization has been deeply unpopular in some areas, however, triggering protests and scattered violence. Russian men have formed miles-long lines trying to leave at some borders and Moscow also reportedly has set up draft offices at its borders to intercept some of those fleeing.
On the subject of sabotage that has hit Russian gas pipelines to Europe this week, Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, claimed Thursday that the Nord Stream pipeline accidents would have been impossible without a government’s involvement.
“It looks like a terror attack, probably conducted on a state level,” Peskov told reporters. “It’s a very dangerous situation that requires a quick investigation.”
He dismissed media reports about Russian warships spotted in the area as “stupid and biased,” claiming that many more NATO aircraft and ships “have been spotted in the area.”
European officials have noted that Russia benefits from higher gas prices when supplies to Europe are disrupted.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine