Russia to annex more of Ukraine on Friday
Russia planned to annex more of Ukraine on Friday in an escalation of the seven-month war that seemed sure to further isolate the Kremlin, draw it more international punishment and bring extra military, political and economic support to Ukraine.
The annexation would come just days after voters supposedly approved Moscow-managed “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 folded into Russia during a Kremlin ceremony attended by President Vladimir Putin, who is expected to give a major 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 Friday of his National Security and Defense Council.
The US and its allies have promised to adopt even more sanctions than they've already levied against Russia and to offer millions of dollars in extra support for Ukraine as the Kremlin duplicates the annexation playbook it followed when it incorporated Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
Ukraine repeated its vows to recapture the four regions, as well as Crimea. For its part, Russia pledges to defend all its territory - including newly annexed regions - by all available means, including nuclear weapons.
Heightening the tensions are Russia's partial military mobilization and allegations of sabotage of two Russian pipelines on the Baltic Sea floor that were designed to feed natural gas to Europe. Adding to the Kremlin's woes is the fact that Ukraine is succeeding in recapturing some of the very land Russia is annexing.
Ukraine's Western supporters have described the stage-managed referendums on whether to live under Russian rule as a bald-faced land grab based on lies. They say some people were forced to vote a gunpoint in an election without independent observers on territory from which thousands of residents have fled or been forcibly deported.
“It's absolutely unacceptable,'' said Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky, whose country holds the European Union presidency. “We reject such one-sided annexation based on a fully falsified process with no legitimacy.” Lipavsky described the pro-Russia referendums as “theater play'' and insisted the regions remain ''Ukrainian territory.” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said at a conference in Berlin that Russia's moves were “the opposite of peace.'' ''It's dictated 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 major blow to Moscow's war effort, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, citing Russian reports, said Ukrainian forces may soon entirely encircle Lyman, a city 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city.
“The collapse of the Lyman pocket will likely be highly consequential to the Russian grouping'' in the northern Donetsk and western Luhansk regions and ''may allow Ukrainian troops to threaten Russian positions along the western Luhansk” region, the institute said Elsewhere on the battlefront, Ukrainian authorities said Russian shelling killed at least eight civilians in the past 24 hours, including a child, and wounded scores of others. A 12-year-old girl was pulled alive out of rubble after an attack on Dnipro, officials said.
“The rescuers have taken her from under the rubble. She was asleep when the Russian missile hit,” local administrator Valentyn Reznichenko said.
A Russian rocket attack on Kramatorsk, an eastern Donetsk city that Ukraine still holds, wounded 11 people and inflicted damage, Mayor Oleksandr Honcharenko said.
More fighting near the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant - Europe's biggest - was another source of concern. Russian forces occupy the plant, but Ukrainian technicians still are running it.
A suspected land mine explosion Thursday on the power plant's perimeter fence was likely triggered by wild animals. The blast damaged electrical lines, according to Ukraine's atomic power agency, Energoatom.
Russia's partial mobilization has been deeply unpopular in some areas, triggering protests and violence. Russian men have formed miles-long lines trying to leave the country, and Moscow reportedly set up draft offices at its borders to intercept some of those fleeing.
British military intelligence claimed the number of Russian military-age men fleeing the country likely exceeds the number of forces that Moscow used to initially invade Ukraine in February.
“The better off and well educated are over-represented amongst those attempting to leave Russia,” the British said. “When combined with those reservists who are being mobilized, the domestic economic impact of reduced availability of labor and the acceleration of brain drain' is likely to become increasingly significant.” On the subject of sabotage that has hit Russian gas pipelines to Europe this week, Peskov claimed Thursday that the Nord Stream pipeline accidents would have been impossible without a government's involvement.
“It looks like a terror attack, probably conducted on a state level,” Peskov told reporters. “It's a very dangerous situation that requires a quick investigation.” He dismissed media reports about Russian warships detected in the area as “stupid and biased,” claiming that many more NATO aircraft and ships ''have been spotted” there.
European officials have noted that Russia benefits from higher gas prices when supplies to Europe are disrupted.
(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)