Kyiv, Ukraine — Russia planned to annex more Ukraine on Friday in an escalation of the seven-month war that was expected to further isolate the Kremlin, attract more international sanctions and provide Ukraine with additional military, political and economic support.
The annexation – and planned celebratory concerts and rallies in Moscow and the occupied territories – would come just days after voters reportedly approved Moscow-run “referendums” that Ukrainian and Western officials have denounced as illegal, forced and rigged.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday that four regions of Ukraine – Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia – would be incorporated into Russia at a Kremlin ceremony attended by President Vladimir Putin, who should make an important speech. Peskov said the regions’ pro-Moscow administrators would sign treaties to join Russia in the Kremlin’s ornate St. George’s Hall.
In an apparent response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called an emergency meeting of his National Security and Defense Council on Friday.
Zelenskyy also sought to capitalize on anti-war sentiment in Russia by releasing a special video aimed at Russia’s ethnic minorities, particularly those in Dagestan, one of the country’s poorest regions in the North Caucasus.
“You don’t have to die in Ukraine,” he said, wearing a black hoodie that read “I am Ukrainian” in English, and standing in front of a plaque in Kyiv commemorating what he called a hero of Dagestan. He called on ethnic minorities to resist the mobilization.
The United States and its allies have vowed to adopt even more sanctions than they have already imposed on Russia and offer millions of dollars in additional support to Ukraine as the Kremlin replicates the playbook of annexation that it followed when it incorporated Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014.
Ukraine reiterated its wishes to take back the four regions, as well as Crimea. For its part, Russia undertakes to defend all of its territory – including the newly annexed regions – by all available means, including nuclear weapons.
Russia’s partial military mobilization and allegations of sabotage of two Russian pipelines at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, designed to supply Europe with natural gas, are heightening tensions. Adding to the Kremlin’s woes are Ukraine’s success in retaking some of the land Russia is in the process of annexing and the mobilization problems that President Vladimir Putin acknowledged on Thursday.
Western supporters of Ukraine have described the orchestrated referendums on whether to live under Russian rule as a brazen land grab based on lies. They say some people were forced to vote at gunpoint in an election without independent observers in territory from which thousands fled or were forcibly expelled.
In unusually strong language, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters in New York on Thursday that Russia’s annexation would violate the UN Charter and has “no legal value”. He described the move as “a dangerous escalation” and said it “must not be accepted.”
“Any decision by Russia to move forward will further undermine the prospects for peace,” said António Guterres.
As a permanent member of the UN Security Council with veto power, Russia bears “a special responsibility” to uphold the UN Charter, the secretary-general said.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Guterres conveyed the message to Russia’s UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia on Wednesday.
The European Union also strongly opposed it.
“This is absolutely unacceptable,” said Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky, whose country holds the presidency of the European Union. “We reject such a unilateral annexation based on an entirely falsified process without any legitimacy.”
Lipavsky called the pro-Russian referendums a “play” and insisted the regions remain “Ukrainian territory”.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Russia’s measures were “the opposite of peace”.
“As long as this Russian diktat prevails in the occupied territories of Ukraine, no citizen is safe. No citizen is free,” he said.
In what would be a blow to Moscow’s war effort, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of Warfare said Ukrainian forces could soon surround Lyman, 160 kilometers (100 miles) south- east of Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine.
“The collapse of the Lyman pocket is likely to have significant consequences for the Russian grouping” in the northern Donetsk and western Luhansk regions and “may allow Ukrainian troops to threaten Russian positions along the region west of Lugansk,” the institute said, citing Russian reports.
Elsewhere on the battlefront:
– Rescuers pulled a sleeping 12-year-old girl alive from the rubble after a Russian missile attack on Dnipro, local administrator Valentyn Reznichenko said.
– Officials based in Moscow in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine reported that around 30 people were killed when the Ukrainian army shelled a convoy of refugees.
– A Russian rocket attack on Kramatorsk, a town in eastern Donetsk that Ukraine still holds, injured 11 people and caused damage, Mayor Oleksandr Honcharenko said.
— Continued fighting near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant — the largest in Europe — was another cause for concern. Russian forces occupy the factory, but Ukrainian technicians run it. According to Ukraine’s atomic energy agency, Energoatom, a suspected landmine explosion on the plant’s perimeter fence, likely triggered by wild animals, damaged power lines.
Russia’s partial mobilization was chaotic and unpopular, sparking protests and violence. Russian men have formed mile-long queues in an attempt to leave the country, and Moscow has set up recruitment offices on its borders to intercept some of those fleeing.
In an apparent effort to calm the population in the face of domestic criticism and confusion, Putin told the Russian Security Council on Thursday that mistakes had been made during the mobilization. He said Russian men mistakenly called up should be sent home and only reservists with appropriate training and specialties should be called up to serve.
There have been multiple reports of Russian men outside eligible categories being forced to serve and of reservists receiving inadequate training and equipment.
British military intelligence has claimed the number of Russian men of military age fleeing likely exceeds the forces Moscow used to invade Ukraine in February, and said many of those leaving are well-educated, prompting a “brain drain”.
Finland has closed one of the last exit doors for the Russians. It prohibits Russian citizens with tourist visas from entering the country from Friday. With the exception of Norway, which has only one border crossing with Russia, Finland provided the last easily accessible land route for Russian holders of Schengen visas, which allow free movement across much of the country. ‘Europe.
Regarding the sabotage that hit Russian gas pipelines to Europe this week, Peskov said on Thursday that it “looks like a terrorist attack, probably carried out at the state level.”
“This is a very dangerous situation that requires prompt investigation,” he said, calling media reports of Russian warships detected in the area “stupid and biased,” saying many other aircraft and NATO ships “have been spotted there”.
NATO warned on Thursday that it would retaliate to any attacks on critical infrastructure in its 30 member nations and joined other Western officials in citing sabotage as the likely cause of the pipeline damage.
Andrew Katell in New York and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine