Russia confirmed on Thursday it will formally annex parts of Ukraine where occupied areas held Kremlin-orchestrated “referendums” on living under Moscow’s rule that the Ukrainian government and the West denounced as illegal and rigged.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend a ceremony on Friday in the Kremlin when four regions of Ukraine will be officially folded into Russia, spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Peskov said the pro-Moscow administrators of the regions will sign treaties to join Russia during the ceremony at the Kremlin’s St. George’s Hall.
The official annexation was widely expected following the votes that wrapped up on Tuesday in the areas under Russian occupation in Ukraine and after Moscow claimed residents overwhelming supported for their areas to formally become part of Russia.
Ukraine, the European Union and the U.S. and Canada have denounced the votes as a sham.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Thursday denounced the vote as a “dictated peace” that’s contrary to free and fair elections and warned that no citizen is either free or safe in Ukraine’s Russian-occupied territories as long as “this Russian diktat” prevails there.
Baerbock told a news conference in Berlin that officials have heard of people in the four regions being taken “under threats and sometimes even [at] gunpoint” to drop their ballots in transparent boxes.
Finland to limit arrivals from Russia
Armed troops had gone door-to-door with election officials to collect ballots in five days of voting. The suspiciously high margins in favour were characterized as a land grab by an increasingly cornered Russian leadership after embarrassing military losses in Ukraine.
Referendums were held in Moscow-installed administrations in the four regions of southern and Eastern Ukraine — Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia. The Kremlin earlier this week reported support ranging from 87 to 99 per cent in the votes across the region.
The Kremlin has been unmoved by the criticism from the West over the referendums and the invasion. After a counteroffensive by Ukraine this month dealt Moscow’s forces heavy battlefield setbacks, Russia said it would call up 300,000 reservists to join the fight. It also warned it could resort to nuclear weapons.
The Institute for the Study of War in Britain, citing Russian reports, claimed the number of Russian military-age men fleeing the country likely exceeds the number of forces Moscow used to initially invade Ukraine in February.
“The better off and well-educated are over-represented amongst those attempting to leave Russia,” the institute said in a new report. “When combined with those reservists who are being mobilized, the domestic economic impact of reduced availability of labour and the acceleration of ‘brain drain’ is likely to become increasingly significant.”
That partial mobilization is deeply unpopular in some areas, however, triggering protests, scattered violence, and Russians fleeing the country by the tens of thousands. Miles-long lines formed at some borders and Moscow also reportedly set up draft offices at borders to intercept some of those trying to leave.
The Finnish government said Thursday it would significantly limit passenger traffic on its border with Russia, banning Russian citizens travelling with tourist visas from entering the Nordic country effective the next day.
“The decision in principle aims to completely prevent Russian tourism to Finland and the related transit through Finland,” Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said during a news conference.
As of Sept. 1, Finland slashed the number of visas — including for tourism purposes — issued to Russian citizens to one-tenth of the typical number, a move seen as a show of solidarity with Ukraine.
At least 8 killed in latest violence
In the latest violence, Ukraine’s presidential office says that at least eight civilians have been killed and 16 others have been wounded by Russian shelling.
The office said Thursday casualties include two adults and a child killed by a missile strike on the city of Dnipro Wednesday.
The attack injured five — including a 12 year-old girl pulled from the rubble — and damaged 60 houses, a street market and power lines.
Russian shelling also hit Nikopol across the Dnieper River from the Russia-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.
In the eastern Donetsk region, Russian artillery barrages killed five civilians and wounded four.
Meanwhile, authorities in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk say 11 people have been wounded after four rockets hit the city. Thursday’s early morning attack damaged high-rise buildings and private homes.