By Olga Voitovych and Joshua Berlinger, CNN
Russia’s legislature on Monday began the process of approving President Vladimir Putin’s decision to annex four parts of Ukraine, despite the fact that the Kremlin is not in full control of those regions and has not settled upon the exact boundaries of the territories it is attempting to absorb.
Legislative approval of the annexation, which is illegal under international law, is expected to be a formality, although it will take a couple of days. Putin and his allies effectively control both branches of the Russian legislature, and the space for political dissent in Russia has shrunk in recent years.
But the maneuverings inside the ornate halls of the Kremlin stand in stark contrast to the facts on the ground in the battlefields of eastern Ukraine.
Russian forces have suffered a series of surprising defeats in eastern Ukraine, forcing them to retreat and abandon several positions in areas the Kremlin declares it is annexing. Much of the territory Moscow claims as its own in Donetsk region is under the control of Ukrainian forces, and the Kremlin appears unsure of the exact borders of the regions it plans to annex. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow needed to “continue consulting” with the local populations before establishing its borders.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Sunday that the country had taken back Lyman, while the Ukrainian military said it had recaptured the nearby villages of Drobysheve and Torske, putting Kyiv in a better position as it seeks to take back the Luhansk region.
Pro-Russian officials said Monday that Ukrainian forces had pushed into the Luhansk region, nearly all of which is under the control of Russia or Russian-aligned forces. Ukrainian forces liberated the Luhansk village of Bilohorivka at the end of September and have now gained a foothold in the direction of Lysychansk. Lysychansk was the last Ukrainian holdout in Luhansk before Kyiv withdrew its troops in July.
In a third region, Kherson, Ukrainian forces are advancing and have captured several villages and settlements, including Zolota Balka on the western bank of the Dnipro river, according to a Ukrainian regional official and a pro-Russian military blogger. On Sunday, Zelensky said Ukraine’s military had taken Arkhanhelske and Myroliubivka.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in an interview with CNN on Sunday that he believes Ukraine is “making progress” in Kherson, thanks in part to weapons supplied by Washington.
“What we’re seeing now is a kind of change in the battlefield dynamics,” Austin said. “They’ve done very, very well in the Kharkiv area and moved to take advantage of opportunities. The fight in the — the Kherson region’s going a bit slower, but they’re making progress.”
The losses have sparked an unusual amount of criticism from pro-Russian propagandists critical in recent days. One prominent Russian pro-government tabloid, Komsomolskaya Pravda, said Russian forces had to retreat in the strategically important city of Lyman because they lacked manpower and communicated poorly, and commanding officers there made “mistakes.”
What Russia is attempting to annex
Donetsk and Luhansk are two of the four regions Russia has said it will annex. They are both home to Russian-backed breakaway republics, and fighting has been raging in both since 2014.
The other areas, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, are both in southern Ukraine and have been occupied by Russian forces since shortly after the invasion began in late February.
In a formal speech at the Kremlin’s opulent St. George’s Hall on Friday, Putin announced that Russia would push forward with annexing those four regions, after so-called referendums in those areas returned results that purported to show that the majority of people living there voted in favor of acceding to Russian sovereignty.
The contests have been widely panned as a farce that failed to meet internationally recognized standards of free and fair elections. Reports from the ground suggested that voting took place both essentially and literally at gunpoint.
Countries across the world quickly condemned Putin’s announcement that the regions would be annexed. Members of the G7 — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — and the European Union said they would never recognize the Kremlin’s sovereignty over the regions and vowed to “impose further economic costs on Russia.”
EU member states began summoning Russian ambassadors in a coordinated manner on Friday to “convey strong condemnation of these actions” and demand the “immediate halt to steps undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity and violating UN Charter and international law,” a spokesman for the bloc said.
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CNN’s Chris Liakos, Mick Krever, Anna Chernova and Uliana Pavlova contributed to this report