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Putin signs decree recognising two Ukrainian regions as independent states after sham referendums

Vladimir Putin’s Russia took another step closer towards annexing vast swathes of Ukraine tonight by recognising two regions of the war-torn country as breakaway territories – after Moscow rigged the outcome of a series of fake referendums there at gunpoint.

The Kremlin dictator signed decrees recognising Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the country’s south and east as states independent of Kyiv – a precursor to his deranged plot to illegally absorb around 15% of Ukrainian territory into Russia.

Putin’s annexation will take place at an official ceremony followed by planned celebratory concerts and rallies in Moscow’s Red Square, where the President is expected to outline his view on why Ukraine has no right to an independent existence, and the occupied territories.

The stage-managed exercise follows a bogus five-day voting process across Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk that was entirely rigged in favour of becoming part of the Russian Federation. Russian troops even forced Ukrainians at gunpoint to cast their ballots in the sham votes.

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spin doctor, said Kremlin-installed officials in Ukraine had requested that the annexation process go ahead. He said: ‘All four territories that held referendums made corresponding requests to the Russian side.’

MPs in the Duma, the country’s puppet parliament, are expected to rubber stamp the move next week. It is a carbon copy of Moscow’s approach in 2014 when it held a fake referendum in Crimea as a pretext for moving in and seizing the Ukrainian peninsula.

But Kyiv said that the annexation votes will not stop their armed forces from trying to retake its illegally stolen land, vowing a ‘harsh’ response. For its part, Russia pledges to defend all its territory – including newly annexed regions – by all available means, including nuclear weapons. 

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 at gunpoint in an election without independent observers on territory from which thousands of residents have fled or been forcibly deported. 

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 are Ukraine’s success in recapturing some of the very land Russia is annexing and problems with the mobilization that Putin acknowledged on Thursday.

As the Ukraine war takes another dangerous turn:

  • Rescuers pulled a sleeping 12-year-old girl alive from rubble after a Russian missile attack on Dnipro, local administrator Valentyn Reznichenko said.
  • Moscow-installed officials in Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region reported that about 30 people were killed when the Ukrainian military shelled a refugee convoy.
  • 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 are running it. A suspected land mine explosion on the plant’s perimeter fence, likely triggered by wild animals, damaged electrical lines, according to Ukraine’s atomic power agency, Energoatom.

President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting via a video link in Moscow

Konstantin Ivashchenko (left), former CEO of the Azovmash plant and appointed pro-Russian mayor of Mariupol, visits a polling station as people vote in a referendum in Mariupol

Konstantin Ivashchenko (left), former CEO of the Azovmash plant and appointed pro-Russian mayor of Mariupol, visits a polling station as people vote in a referendum in Mariupol

People make preparations for a concert at the Red Square, with constructions reading the words ''Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Russia'', and the St. Basil's Cathedral and Lenin Mausoleum on the background, in Moscow

People make preparations for a concert at the Red Square, with constructions reading the words ”Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Russia”, and the St. Basil’s Cathedral and Lenin Mausoleum on the background, in Moscow

Referendum committee members empty a ballot box to start counting them, at a polling station in Luhansk

Referendum committee members empty a ballot box to start counting them, at a polling station in Luhansk

It comes as Russian forces in the town of Lyman, in the eastern Donbas region, face being surrounded with Ukrainian forces continuing to advance

It comes as Russian forces in the town of Lyman, in the eastern Donbas region, face being surrounded with Ukrainian forces continuing to advance

Members of an election commission count ballots after voting during a referendum at a polling station in Donetsk

Members of an election commission count ballots after voting during a referendum at a polling station in Donetsk

A man casts his ballot at a polling station during a referendum in the Donetsk People's Republic

A man casts his ballot at a polling station during a referendum in the Donetsk People’s Republic

Police officers walk at Red Square in front of constructions reading the words ''Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Russia'', with the St. Basil's Cathedral and Lenin Mausoleum in the background, ahead of a planned concert in Moscow

Police officers walk at Red Square in front of constructions reading the words ”Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Russia”, with the St. Basil’s Cathedral and Lenin Mausoleum in the background, ahead of a planned concert in Moscow

A policeman stands in front of barriers that block access to Red Square with St Basil's Cathedral in the background

A policeman stands in front of barriers that block access to Red Square with St Basil’s Cathedral in the background

Putin calls ‘unprecedented sabotage’ that destroyed Nord Stream gas pipeline an act of ‘international terrorism’ 

Russian President Vladimir Putin called the damage to the Nord Stream gas pipelines ‘unprecedented sabotage’ and ‘an act of international terrorism’.

The cause of the leaks along the a major undersea pipelines is yet unknown but Nato have said the incidents were the result of ‘deliberate, reckless and irresponsible acts of sabotage’.

There are now two holes in each pipe, two of which are located in Swedish waters and two in Danish waters, Sweden’s coastguard said today.

Despite Putin’s remarks today in phone call with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan, the attack is widely thought to have been orchestrated by Russia.

NATO said the explosions looked like a reckless and irresponsible act of sabotage, and that any deliberate attack against infrastructure of countries in the Western alliance would be met by a ‘united and determined response’.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: ‘This looks like an act of terrorism, possibly on a state level.

‘It is very difficult to imagine that such an act of a terrorism could have happened without the involvement of a state of some kind’.

Volodymyr Zelensky warned: ‘They are worthless and do not change reality. The territorial integrity of Ukraine will be restored. And our reaction to the results by Russia will be very harsh.’ 

President Joe Biden pledged that the US will never recognise Russia’s claims on Ukraine’s sovereign territory, while United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that if Russia moves ahead with its plans to annex the four Ukrainian regions, it will mark a ‘dangerous escalation’.

Outgoing Italian premier Mario Draghi said ‘Italy will not recognise’ what he described as ‘illegal referendums’. Sources close to Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni, expected to be appointed the country’s next prime minister in a month’s time, said she would also refuse to recognise the results.

Putin has been under pressure to demonstrate to an increasingly sceptical Russian public that his invasion of Ukraine is yielding results.

The surprise decision to order the country’s first mass conscription since World War Two, of at least 300,000 people, led to a surge of Russian men fleeing across its borders.

In unusually strong language, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters Thursday in New York that Russia’s annexation would violate the U.N. 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 go forward will further jeopardize the prospects for peace,’ Guterres said.

As a veto-wielding permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, Russia bears ‘a particular responsibility’ to respect 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 objected strongly.

‘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 Russia’s moves 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 major blow to Moscow’s war effort, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said Ukrainian forces may soon encircle Lyman, 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, citing Russian reports.

Russia’s partial mobilization has been chaotic and unpopular, triggering protests and violence. Russian men have formed miles-long lines trying to leave the country, and Moscow set up draft offices at 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 Russia’s Security Council on Thursday that mistakes had been made in the mobilization. He said Russian men mistakenly called up should be sent home and that only reservists with proper training and specialties should be summoned to serve.

Multiple reports have surfaced of Russian men outside the eligible categories being forced to serve, and of reservists being provided inadequate training and equipment.

British military intelligence claimed the number of Russian military-age men fleeing likely exceeds the forces Moscow used to invade Ukraine in February, and said many of those leaving are well educated, causing a ‘brain drain.’

Finland closed one of the last ways out for Russians. It’s banning Russian citizens with tourist visas from entering the country starting Friday. With the exception of Norway, which has only one border crossing with Russia, Finland has provided the last easily accessible land route for Russian holders of Schengen visas, which allow free movement across much of Europe.

Regarding the sabotage that hit Russian gas pipelines to Europe this week, Peskov claimed Thursday it ‘looks like a terror attack, probably conducted on a state level.’

‘It’s a very dangerous situation that requires a quick investigation,’ he said, dismissing 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.

NATO warned Thursday that it would retaliate for any attacks on the critical infrastructure of its 30 member countries and joined other Western officials in citing sabotage as the likely cause of the pipeline damage.

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