Russia will on Friday begin formally annexing up to 18% of Ukrainian territory, with President Vladimir Putin expected to host a ceremony in the Kremlin to declare four occupied Ukrainian territories part of Russia.
The ceremony would take place on Friday at 15:00 local time (08:00 ET) in the Kremlin’s St. George’s Hall, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. Putin will deliver a speech and meet with Russian-backed leaders of the four occupied regions on the sidelines of the ceremony, he added.
Peskov’s announcement comes after people in four occupied areas of Ukraine supposedly voted in huge numbers in favor of joining Russia, in five-day polls that were illegal under international law and dismissed by Kyiv and the West as a sham.
The so-called referendums were organized by Russian-backed separatists in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) in the eastern Donbas region, where fighting has raged since the rebels seized control of parts of Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014.
The other two areas to hold so-called referendums were Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in southern Ukraine. Russia has occupied the two regions since shortly after it invaded the country in late February.
Vladimir Saldo, the head of the Russian-backed administration in Kherson, urged Putin to annex the region on Wednesday, following the so-called referendum there.
The Moscow-aligned leadership in all four places claimed the processes yielded massive majorities for those “voting” in favor of acceding to Russian sovereignty: 87.05% in Kherson, 93.11% in Zaporizhzhia, 98.42% in the LPR and 99.23% in the DPR.
The process was widely panned as illegitimate, as experts said it was impossible to hold a free and fair election in a war zone or occupied territory. A top United Nations official, Rosemary DiCarlo, said the votes “cannot be called a genuine expression of the popular will.”
“Unilateral actions aimed to provide a veneer of legitimacy to the attempted acquisition by force by one state of another state’s territory, while claiming to represent the will of the people, cannot be regarded as legal under international law,” said DiCarlo, the UN’s under-secretary-general.
Reports from the ground suggest that voting in the occupied regions was done essentially – and in some cases, literally – at gunpoint. Serhii Hayday, the Ukrainian head of the Luhansk region military administration, said that authorities were going door to door, trailed by armed guards, to collect votes, and that local populations were being intimidated into voting to join Russia.
The results also contradict data from before the war. An exclusive CNN poll of Ukrainians conducted in February, just before Russia’s invasion, found just 18% of Ukrainians in the east – including the Luhansk and Donetsk regions – agreed with the statement that “Russia and Ukraine should be one country,” while 16% of Ukrainians in the south, which included the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, supported it.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky said Tuesday the process was a “farce” that “cannot even be called an imitation of referendums.”
Zelensky also accused Russia of attempting to use the same strategy as it did when Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014. A referendum organized there, which officially saw 97% of voters back annexation, was ratified by Russian lawmakers within a week. Much of the international community did not respect that outcome, and it appears they will do the same with Tuesday’s results.
Some of the separatist leaders involved in carrying out sham referendums to secede from Ukraine and join Russia landed in Moscow Thursday, according to a photograph posted by the Russia-appointed deputy head of the Kherson regional military administration Kirill Stremousov.
LPR chief Leonid Pasechnik told Russian state news agency TASS Thursday he was also in the Russian capital.
Reuters said Thursday that a stage with giant video screens has been set up on Red Square, alongside billboards proclaiming “Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson – Russia!.” TASS had previously reported that a rally would be held in front of the Kremlin on Friday in support of the poll results of the so-called referendums.
Alhough the results of the Russian-backed referendums are unsurprising, there is concern Russia’s attempts to assert sovereignty over Ukrainian territory could portend a dangerous escalation in the seven-month-long war.
The Kremlin is expected to treat the territories as though they are parts of Russia, warning that it would defend them as such – signaling a potential military escalation once the Ukrainian Army attempts to reclaim them.
In an address on September 21, Putin raised the specter of nuclear weapons, saying he would use “all the means at our disposal” if he deemed the “territorial integrity” of Russia to be jeopardized.
The so-called referendums came after a sudden and successful Ukrainian offensive through most of the occupied Kharkiv region swung momentum in the conflict back towards Kyiv this month, galvanizing Ukraine’s Western backers and causing anger in Russia, which has time and again been stymied on the battlefield.
With losses piling up, Putin has enacted a “partial mobilization” of Russian citizens, meaning those who are in the reserve could be called up and nationals with military experience would be subject to conscription – and potentially sent to defend the illegally annexed territories. At the outset of the conflict, Putin was careful to emphasize that the military assault, euphemistically referred to as a “special military operation,” would only be fought by military professionals.
Hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled the country to avoid conscription. Since the announcement, more than 50,000 Russians have fled to Finland and at least 100,000 have crossed into Kazakhstan in the past week. Images from crossings into Finland, Georgia and Mongolia show massive traffic jams on the Russian side of each border.
Protests against the partial mobilization have broken out in some of Russia’s ethnic minority regions. Ukrainian officials, including Zelensky, have alleged that Russia is forcibly drafting domestic protesters; entire segments of male populations in remote villages; and fighting-age men from minority communities as well as occupied territories in Ukraine. A Ukrainian mayor-in-exile alleged Russia was conscripting his constituents to “use them as cannon fodder.”
CNN has been unable to verify these claims.