MOSCOW, Russia — Moscow will formally annex four Russia-occupied regions of Ukraine at a Kremlin ceremony on Friday, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said Thursday.
“Tomorrow in the Georgian Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace at 3 pm. (1200 GMT) a signing ceremony will take place on the incorporation of the new territories into Russia,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
He added that the Russian leader will make a major speech at the event.
Ukraine’s Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions are occupied by the Russian army, which Putin sent over the border in February.
Annexation could dramatically raise the stakes in the grueling ongoing war. Putin has said Russia would use any and all available means to defend its territory, implying that after the four regions were annexed Moscow could deploy strategic nuclear weapons to repulse Ukrainian attempts to take back the territory.
Moscow organized what it called referendums in the four regions that it controls, with Kremlin-installed officials saying this week residents backed joining Russia.
All four Moscow-backed leaders of the regions said they were in Moscow and expecting a meeting with Putin.
The move comes eight years after Moscow annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine and would mark a significant escalation in the conflict.
The West has warned Russia not to press ahead with the annexations, with the G7 saying it would “never recognize” the move.
Kyiv has asked for more military aid as a response.
The official annexation was widely expected following the votes that wrapped up on Tuesday in the areas under Russian occupation in Ukraine and after Moscow claimed residents overwhelmingly supported for their areas to formally become part of Russia.
The United States and its Western allies have sharply condemned the votes as “sham” and vowed never to recognize their results. Israel has also rejected the vote.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Thursday joined other Western officials in denouncing the referendums.
“Under threats and sometimes even (at) gunpoint people are being taken out of their homes or workplaces to vote in glass ballot boxes,” she said at a conference in Berlin.
“This is the opposite of free and fair elections,” Baerbock said. “And this is 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.”
Armed troops had gone door-to-door with election officials to collect ballots in five days of voting. The suspiciously high margins in favor were characterized as a land grab by an increasingly cornered Russian leadership after embarrassing military losses in Ukraine.
Moscow-installed administrations in the four regions of southern and eastern Ukraine claimed Tuesday night that 93% of the ballots cast in the Zaporizhzhia region supported annexation, as did 87% in the Kherson region, 98% in the Luhansk region and 99% in Donetsk.
Ukraine too has dismissed the referendums as illegitimate, saying it has every right to retake the territories, a position that has won support from Washington.
The US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said late Tuesday that Washington would propose a UN Security Council resolution to condemn Russia’s “sham” vote.
The resolution would also urge member states not to recognize any altered status of Ukraine and demand that Russia withdraws its troops from its neighbor, she tweeted.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, also weighed in on the ballots, on Wednesday calling them “illegal” and describing the results as “falsified.”
The Kremlin has been unmoved by the criticism. After a counteroffensive by Ukraine this month dealt Moscow’s forces heavy battlefield setbacks, Russia said it would call up 300,000 reservists to join the fight. It also warned it could resort to nuclear weapons.