Russian proxies in Ukraine push Moscow to annex occupied regions

KYIV, Ukraine — In a show of pomp intended to give Moscow’s land grab a veneer of legitimacy, Russian officials in occupied areas of Ukraine on Wednesday appealed to President Vladimir V. Putin to annex the regions.

The annexation requests had an air of order and formality that contrasted with the chaos facing Russian leaders both on the battlefield, where they continue to suffer losses, and at home, where tens of thousands of Russians are fleeing the country to avoid compulsory military service. .

The requests by Russian proxies followed bogus referendums that ended Tuesday in four Ukrainian regions that, to no one’s surprise, were intended to put the voter’s stamp of approval on joining Russia. Many of the votes were cast at gunpoint, witnesses said.

A resident of the city of Berislav, in the Kherson region, scoffed at the idea of ​​wanting to join Russia.

“When they first came to our city, they beat me up and took both of my cars,” the man, Pavlo, said of the Russian soldiers. “And now they’ve threatened me that if I don’t vote they’ll evict me and my family from our apartment.”

Because of the threats, said Pavlo, who insisted that his last name not be made public for fear of reprisals, he voted to join Russia.

The annexation push came as the European Union moved to impose new sanctions aimed at punishing Russia for its latest actions. The draft measures include a cap on the price of oil, trade restrictions and the blacklisting of several people responsible for the referendums.

“Last week, Russia stepped up the invasion of Ukraine to a whole new level,” said Ursula von der Leyen, the bloc’s top official. “We are determined to make the Kremlin pay for this new escalation.”

On February 24, Russian forces crossed the border and began to raze Ukrainian cities. But when it comes to annexation, Russian officials seem to want at least a patina of legality, even as most of the world condemns the referendums as manifestly illegal.

Under Russia’s 1993 Constitution, Moscow cannot annex areas of a neighboring country without consent. And so the moves that are taking place are meant to tick boxes under Russian law that governs how to claim land in a neighboring country.

In practice, much of the territory that Russia is moving to claim is not under its control, and the Ukrainian military is reducing even more.

On Wednesday, Ukraine continued to claim more towns and villages in the east while attacking Russian positions in the south. Destroyed Russian tanks and the bodies of Russian soldiers littered the roadside outside the village of Oskil as Ukrainian soldiers advanced on the strategically important town of Lyman.

The destruction illustrated the sparsely spread and battered challenges Russian forces face as they try to fend off multiple Ukrainian offensives. Russia’s heavy losses prompted Putin to take the politically risky step of ordering the nation’s first mass mobilization since World War II.

But at least 200,000 Russians have left the country since Putin announced partial military mobilization, according to figures provided by Russia’s neighbors.

Amid setbacks on the battlefield, Russian proxies in Ukraine, apparent referendum results in hand, moved quickly for Moscow to incorporate the territories into Russia.

In two of the four provinces where the votes were held, Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, Moscow had established client states eight years ago. It was the leaders of those entities, whose legitimacy is not recognized by much of the world, who made the requests for annexation.

Denis Pushilin, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said he would leave for Moscow with a document signed by members of an electoral commission showing the results for use in the annexation process, according to Tass, the Russian news agency.

Luhansk People’s Republic leader Leonid Pasechnik was also reported to be on his way to Moscow, posting a video online asking Putin to accept what he called the election results.

In the other two, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson in the south, puppet leaders declared independence from Ukraine in what they said was a first step toward being absorbed into Russia.

In Kherson, Volodymyr Saldo, the leader appointed by the Russian occupation army last spring, appealed to Putin on Telegram, the messaging app, to accept the region as part of Russia.

If Russia follows the model established when it annexed the Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin is expected to portray local leaders installed by Russia’s military as independent representatives of Ukrainians there, and it would follow a choreographed process.

The goal this time seems to be to declare parts of Ukraine as Russian territory and then claim that the Ukrainian military is attacking Russia. Annexation would also provide a pretext to recruit Ukrainian men in occupied areas and force them to fight other Ukrainians.

By Wednesday night, the process had moved on, Tass reported. The Russian-installed leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk had sent Putin formal requests to merge with Russia, the news agency said.

Putin could stop the process at any stage, possibly to open up negotiating prospects with the threat of annexation clearly on the table. If he does not, the next step would be to present the appeals of the Russian deputy leaders for approval by both houses of the Russian Parliament. There would be few surprises: both chambers are made up entirely of members loyal to Putin.

Until now, Putin has been coy about his plans. His spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said the Russian leader traveled from the Black Sea resort of Sochi to Moscow on Wednesday but did not plan to comment publicly on the referendums.

Ukraine and its Western allies have dismissed Moscow’s moves as political theater and said they remain determined to push Russian forces back through Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders.

“None of Russia’s criminal actions will change anything for Ukraine,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said in an address to the nation.

European officials also treated Russian-orchestrated votes to annex parts of Ukraine with contempt.

“The EU does not and will never recognize these illegal ‘referendums’ and their falsified result, or any decision taken on the basis of this result, and urges all members of the United Nations to do the same,” the bloc said in a statement. a declaration Wednesday.

In the two weeks since Ukraine expelled Russia from the towns and cities of the northeastern Kharkiv region, its forces have pushed steadily further south, breaking through Russian defensive lines at the Oskil River.

Ukrainian units are making “slow advances on at least two axes east of the line of the Oskil and Seversky Donets rivers,” Britain’s military intelligence agency said on Wednesday.

But even in retreat, Russian forces continued to unleash a furious artillery and missile barrage on towns and cities recently liberated from occupation in the Kharkiv region.

A Russian cruise missile crashed into residential and commercial buildings in the city of Pervomaysk on Monday night, killing eight, including a 15-year-old girl, according to Ukrainian officials.

Andrew E. Kramer Y marc santora reported from Kyiv, Ukraine, and eric nagourneyfrom New York. nicole tung contributed reporting from Oskil, Ukraine, Anna Lukinovafrom Kyiv and Monika Pronzuk from Brussels.