Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared the “independence” of the Ukrainian regions Zaporizhia and Kherson as Moscow prepares to formally proclaim the annexation of Ukrainian territory in a major escalation of its seven-month invasion.
“I order the recognition of the state sovereignty and independence” of Zaporizhia and Kherson in southern Ukraine, Putin said in presidential decrees issued late on Thursday.
The two regions are set to be incorporated into Russia along with the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk at a lavish ceremony in the Kremlin on Friday after hastily-organised referendums in the Russian-occupied regions, which claimed majorities of up to 99 percent in favour of joining Russia. Putin recognised the ‘independence’ of Donetsk and Luhansk in February.
The ceremony – eight years after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine following an invasion and a similar vote – will take place at 3pm local time (12:00 GMT) in the columned Georgievsky Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace, where marble plaques engraved in gold commemorate Russian military heroes.
In unusually strong language, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters in New York City that Russia’s annexation would violate the United Nations Charter and had “no legal value”.
Guterres described Russia’s move as “a dangerous escalation” of the conflict that began on February 24 that “has no place in the modern world.” “It must not be accepted,” he said.
The UN Security Council is due to meet on Friday ahead of another discussion on the leaks discovered in the Nord Stream gas pipeline.
The United States and Albania have been working on a draft resolution that “condemns the Russian Federation’s organization of illegal so-called referenda” in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson, saying they “have no validity,” according to the AFP news agency. It will also call for Russia’s immediate and unconditional withdrawal from Ukraine.
Given Russia has a veto in the security council, all eyes will be on the responses from India and China, as well as a later General Assembly vote. US President Joe Biden on Thursday reiterated the US would never recognise Russia’s claims on Ukraine’s territory. “The results were manufactured in Moscow,” Biden said of the referendums. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan also pressed Putin in a call to take steps to reduce tensions in Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called an emergency meeting on Friday of his National Security and Defence Council. Few details were given, but officials said “fundamental decisions” were to be made amid concern about the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons.
Kyiv earlier dismissed the plan as a “Kremlin freak show”, saying the only appropriate response from the West was to impose new sanctions and supply Ukrainian forces with more weapons.
Ukraine embarked on a major counteroffensive this month that has pushed Russia out of the northeastern Kharkiv region. It is also making advances in the south and is on the doorstep of Lyman in the Donetsk region.
Russia controls only about 60 percent of Donetsk and 70 percent of Zaporizhia, where fighting has raged close to Europe’s biggest nuclear plant.
The sudden annexations mean front lines will now run through territory that Russia is claiming as its own, and which Putin has said he is ready to defend with nuclear weapons if necessary.
Putin last week declared a mobilisation of reservists, a move which has led to huge queues at Russia’s borders as thousands of fighting-age men try to flee the country. Even staunch Kremlin allies have criticised the chaotic nature of the call-up, and Putin himself admitted on Thursday that “all mistakes must be corrected“.
The Kremlin-installed leaders of the four Ukrainian regions, and their officials, have gathered in the Russian capital for the ceremony.
“Victory is ours. We are Russia,” Kirill Stremousov, an official from the Kherson region, declared in a video of himself next to Red Square.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has told reporters that Putin will deliver a major speech on Friday, but did not say whether the president would attend a concert being held on the square, where giant video screens have been set up, and billboards proclaim the names of the regions: ‘Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia, Kherson – Russia!’.
Putin is due to address parliament separately at a later stage, paving the way for it to ratify the annexation process on or before October 7, when he marks his 70th birthday.