Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Russia is ready to officially annex areas of Ukraine where it has military control after referendums there reportedly confirmed Moscow’s rule.
But the ballots were widely discredited, bringing no relief to the Kremlin on Wednesday from international pressure over its attack on its neighbor.
Pro-Moscow governments of all four occupied regions of southern and eastern Ukraine said Tuesday night their residents voted to join Russia in five days of the Kremlin-orchestrated vote.
According to Russia-appointed election officials, 93% of votes cast in Zaporizhia region supported the annexation, as did 87% in Kherson region, 98% in Luhansk region and 99% in Donetsk.
Russian-installed officials in those occupied territories said Wednesday they would ask President Vladimir Putin to incorporate them into Russia. It was not immediately clear how the administrative procedure would develop.
Western countries, however, dismissed the ballots as a meaningless pretext orchestrated by Moscow to legitimize its February 24 invasion of Ukraine.
US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said late Tuesday Washington will propose a UN Security Council resolution to condemn Russia’s “sham” vote.
The resolution would also urge member states not to recognize a changed status of Ukraine and demand that Russia withdraw its troops from its neighbor, she tweeted.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, also commented on the ballot papers, calling them “illegal” on Wednesday and describing the results as “false”.
“This is another violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty (and) territorial integrity, (amid) systematic human rights abuses,” Borrell tweeted.
In Kyiv, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry branded the ballots a “propaganda show” and “null and worthless.”
“Forcing people in these areas to fill out some paperwork on the barrel of a gun is another Russian crime in the course of its aggression against Ukraine,” the State Department said in a statement.
She called on the EU, NATO and the Group of Big Seven to “immediately and significantly” increase pressure on Russia with new sanctions and to significantly increase their military aid to Ukraine.
However, the Kremlin remained unmoved by the hail of criticism. Their spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Russia intends at least to drive Ukrainian forces out of the eastern Donetsk region, where Moscow’s troops and separatist forces currently control about 60 percent of the territory.
The EU also expressed outrage at the alleged sabotage of two subsea natural gas pipelines from Russia to Germany on Tuesday and warned of retaliation for any attack on Europe’s energy grids.
Borrell said on Wednesday that “all available information indicates that these leaks are the result of a premeditated act,” although the perpetrators have not yet been identified.
“Any deliberate disruption to Europe’s energy infrastructure is absolutely unacceptable and will be met with a robust and unified response,” Borrell said in a statement on behalf of the 27 EU member states.
Kremlin spokesman Peskov said the claims that Russia could be behind the incidents were “predictable and stupid”. He told reporters on a conference call that the damage caused huge economic losses to Russia.
The war in Ukraine has led to an energy dispute between the EU, whose members have been heavily dependent on Russian gas supplies for years, and Moscow.
The damage makes it unlikely the pipelines will deliver gas to Europe this winter, analysts say.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s military and a Washington-based think tank said Wednesday that Russia is sending troops to the front lines without any training.
Moscow has struggled to hold the line against Ukraine’s latest counteroffensive and has ordered a partial mobilization to fill out its ranks. However, the efforts are causing unrest among a hesitant public.
In a daily briefing, the General Staff of the Ukrainian military said that the 1st Armored Regiment of the 2nd Motorized Rifle Division of the Russian 1st Tank Army had received untrained new troops.
The Ukrainian military also said prisoners are arriving in Ukraine to reinforce Russian lines. It offered no evidence to support the claim, although Ukrainian security services have released audio recordings of allegedly intercepted Russian phone conversations on the matter.
The think tank Institute for the Study of War cited an online video of a man visibly upset as a member of the 1 Cherson region of Ukraine.
“Mobilized men with a day or two of training are unlikely to meaningfully reinforce Russian positions hit by Ukrainian counter-offensives in the south and east,” the institute said.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said Ukraine’s counter-offensive, which has inflicted some humiliating defeats on Moscow’s forces, is making slow progress.
It states that Russia is currently building a stronger defense.
In the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, which is partially occupied by Moscow, five people have been killed and ten others injured by Russian fire in the past 24 hours, said Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of the local military agency.
Authorities in the southern Ukrainian city of Nikopol said Russian rockets and artillery bombarded the city overnight.
In the city across the Dnipro River from the Russian-occupied territory, ten high-rise buildings and private buildings were hit, as well as a school, power lines and other areas, said Valentyn Reznichenko, the head of the local military administration.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine