Putin is expected to proclaim the annexation of Ukrainian territory in a few days

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ZAPORIIZHZHIA — Moscow was set to annex part of Ukraine on Wednesday, releasing what it called vote tallies showing support from four partially occupied provinces to join Russia, after what Kyiv and the West denounced as illegal mock referendums held at gunpoint.

In Moscow’s Red Square, a grandstand with giant video screens was set up, with billboards proclaiming « Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson – Russia! »

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President Vladimir Putin could proclaim annexation in a speech within days, just over a week since he endorsed referendums, ordered a military mobilization at home and threatened to defend Russia with nuclear weapons if necessary.

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On Wednesday, the Russian-installed administrations in Ukraine’s four provinces formally asked Putin to integrate them into Russia, which Russian officials suggested as a formality.

“The results are clear. Welcome home to Russia! » Dmitry Medvedev, former deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, said on Telegram after the results were released.

Russian-backed authorities say they held the five-day referendums in a territory that makes up about 15% of Ukraine.

Residents who escaped to Ukrainian-held territory in recent days said people were forced to mark ballots on the streets by traveling officials at gunpoint. Footage filmed during the drill showed Russian-installed officials transporting ballot boxes from house to house with gunmen in tow.

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Russia says the vote was voluntary and turnout was high.

« This farce in the occupied territories cannot even be called an imitation of a referendum, » Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a video address overnight.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskiy, told Reuters the Ukrainians who helped organize the drill would be charged with treason and at least five years in prison. Ukrainians forced to vote would not be punished.

Denis Pushilin, the Russian-installed leader in Donetsk, one of two Ukrainian regions Moscow previously declared independent states, said he was on his way to Moscow to complete the legal process of joining Russia.

« We are now moving to a new stage of military action, » he said, amid speculation that Putin is about to change the status of what he has so far called a » special military operation » into an anti-terrorist operation.

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Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia should keep fighting until it has taken control of all of Donetsk. Around 40% of the province is still under Ukrainian control and the scene of some of the heaviest fighting of the war.

Russia’s annexation plan gained momentum as leaking gas bubbled up in the Baltic Sea for a second day after suspected explosions tore through Russian undersea pipelines on Tuesday. The Nord Stream 1 pipeline, once Russia’s main gas route to Germany, was already closed but can no longer be easily reopened.

NATO and the European Union have warned of the need to protect critical infrastructure from what they called « sabotage », although officials refrained from saying who they blamed. The Kremlin has said any theory that could point the finger at Russia for blowing up its own pipelines would be « stupid ».

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The United States is preparing a new round of sanctions to punish Russia for the annexation decision and a $1.1 billion arms package for Ukraine to be announced soon, U.S. officials said.

The head of Russia’s upper house of parliament said the chamber could approve the regions’ membership as early as Oct. 4.

The annexation is part of a huge strategy of escalation announced by Putin last week, with the rapid call of hundreds of thousands of Russian men to fight, and a new warning on nuclear weapons, which he says, was « not a bluff ».

His action follows a stunning setback at the front, when Russian forces hastily abandoned territory the size of Cyprus in days.

Russian officials said any attack on annexed territory would be an attack on Russia itself.

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Russia’s planned annexation of Ukrainian territory has been rejected around the world, even Moscow’s traditional allies such as Serbia and Kazakhstan have said they will not recognize it.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who has offered his services as a mediator, told Zelenskiy by phone that what he called « one-sided » referenda would make it harder to revive moribund diplomatic efforts.


In the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, Ukrainians who had managed to flee Russian-occupied territory through the last frontline checkpoint said they had not seen a real vote.

« It’s funny. No one voted, but the results are in, » laughed Lyubomir Boyko, 43, from Golo Pristan, a village in Russian-occupied Kherson province, as he waited with his family on Wednesday outside a United Nations aid office at a refugee reception center.

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“They can advertise whatever they want. No one voted in the referendum except a few people who switched sides. They went from house to house, but no one came out,” Boyko said.

Residents said many were fleeing in fear that Moscow would immediately start pressuring men to fight in its forces once it declared the territory Russia. For now, the Russian officials at the checkpoint were letting some people go.

« The line of vehicles was so long you couldn’t see the end of it, » said Andriy, 37, a farm laborer from Beryslav in Kherson province who declined to give his last name, describing the point of control.

Entire villages had emptied out, he said, standing by the yellow, mud-stained minibus in which he arrived with his wife, two children and parents.

“Seventy percent of people are leaving because of the referendum. There was no light, no gas, no work, and all of a sudden, it’s the referendum. This is complete nonsense. I don’t know a single person I know who voted.

(Reporting by Reuters Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Peter Graff)



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