The Kremlin announced it would hold a ceremony Friday to begin absorbing four Ukrainian territories, pressing ahead with a widely condemned annexation effort even as Ukrainian forces gain ground in some of those areas.
President Vladimir V. Putin will deliver a “bulky” speech, his spokesman said Thursday, seeking to ignore his military’s struggles in Ukraine, rising internal dissent and worldwide denunciations of referendums in occupied regions, where some were forced to vote at gunpoint.
Although Russia has failed to fully control the four territories it seeks to annex despite months of bloody fighting, the Kremlin was putting on a show designed to present a gloss of legitimacy to its illegal takeover. Moscow authorities put up billboards and a giant video screen in Red Square and announced road closures for Friday. State media described it as preparations for a rally and concert “in support of the referendum result.”
The annexation move has been met with international condemnation, and Ukraine has essentially ignored the Kremlin’s plans. Russian officials have spoken of defending their claims to the annexed territory by any means, a hint at the potential use of nuclear weapons.
Senior US officials say they don’t think Putin is ready to use nuclear weapons now, given the response he would get from the West and Moscow’s allies such as China and India.
For his part, Putin did not mention his annexation plans in a brief television appearance on Thursday, but he did seek to portray himself as on the right side of history, stating that “a more just world order is taking shape.” .”
“The unipolar hegemony is inexorably collapsing,” Putin said. “This is an objective reality that the West categorically refuses to accept.”
In Ukraine, Kyiv forces advanced with a counteroffensive that has allowed them to retake territory in the northeast of the country this month and make inroads into Donetsk and Lugansk, two of the regions where the referendums were held.
In a speech Wednesday night, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine reiterated his denunciation of the votes and said he was working with foreign leaders to coordinate a strong international response.
“Our key task now is to coordinate actions with partners in response to fake referendums organized by Russia and all related threats,” Zelensky said.
September 29, 2022, 4:35 p.m. ET
Billboards proclaimed: “Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Russia!” naming the regions in the south and east of Ukraine where Russian representatives held votes in the last week.
All four regions are partially occupied by Russian troops and the referendums, hastily held in the face of military setbacks in the Kremlin, sought to return large majorities in favor of joining Russia.
Governments around the world say the votes lacked democratic legitimacy, given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, voter coercion, the absence of independent monitors and many civilians fleeing the areas due to fighting. In addition, the Kyiv government told its citizens not to participate.
The choreographed sequence of steps for a region to join the Russian Federation is laid out in the country’s constitution and is expected to be followed in the coming days. That follows the pattern of a similar vote in Crimea, a region in southern Ukraine that was annexed by Russia in 2014.
Following the announcements of the supposed results, Russian representatives in the four occupied areas appealed on Wednesday to join Russia.
In part of a carefully orchestrated process, Russian proxy leaders in the territories were also expected to sign agreements with Moscow on Friday. The constitutional court, which is seen as a rubber stamp for the Kremlin, would approve the deals and they would be ratified by both houses of Russia’s Parliament.
At the same time, the Kremlin would introduce a bill on the admission of the territories to Russia, which would be approved by the lower house of Parliament, the State Duma. Once the Russian Federation Council approves the bill, Putin will sign it into law.
Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin announced on Wednesday that the Duma should hold its accession sessions to approve the annexation next Monday and Tuesday.