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Kyiv slams staged votes as ‘propaganda show’ as E.U. vows to punish Russia

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen arrives Wednesday for a meeting at European Union headquarters in Brussels. (Virginia Mayo/AP)

The Ukrainian government on Wednesday denounced Russia’s staged referendums in four partially occupied regions as “a propaganda show,” vowing to track down and punish the organizers, while the European Commission proposed a raft of new sanctions to inflict its own punishment on the Kremlin and its proxies.

Moscow, however, proclaimed the staged votes to be a major success and a basis for annexation, which Russian officials signaled would move forward within days, even as thousands of Russians continued to flee their country to avoid President Vladimir Putin’s “partial” military mobilization.

“The sham referenda organized in the territories that Russia occupied are an illegal attempt to grab land and to change international borders by force,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a news conference in Brussels. “The mobilization and Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons are further steps on the escalation path.”

“We do not accept the sham referendum and any kind of annexation in Ukraine,” von der Leyen added. “And we’re determined to make the Kremlin pay for this further escalation.”

The commission’s proposed sanctions package — its eighth since Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 — includes provisions to adopt a cap on Russian oil prices as agreed this month by the Group of Seven nations, as well as new penalties on individuals who helped organize the staged votes. The new package, however, must still be approved by all 27 E.U. countries, including Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban signaled resistance Monday, saying sanctions had “backfired.”

In Washington, the Pentagon announced an additional $1.1 billion in long-term military aid to Ukraine, including 18 additional High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS launchers. The precision long-range systems have given Ukrainian forces the ability to strike beyond Russian lines, helping turn the tide of the war. But U.S. defense officials said delivery of the weapons would take a few years to complete, an acknowledgment that the conflict is likely to grind on indefinitely.

Officials in Kyiv reiterated that neither Russia’s orchestrated referendums nor the annexations would change Ukraine’s military objective, which is to reclaim all occupied lands, including Crimea, which Russia invaded and annexed illegally in 2014.

“The Russian Federation organized a propaganda show,” the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “Forcing people in these territories to fill out some papers at the barrel of a gun is yet another Russian crime in the course of its aggression against Ukraine.”

Staged referendums yield expected result as Russia readies annexations

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has pledged to “defend” the citizens of the four regions — Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson — where the Kremlin and its proxies claim residents have voted in favor of joining Russia by absurd margins, in some cases, of more than 90 percent.

On Wednesday, the two leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik, traveled to Moscow and appealed to Putin to officially absorb their areas into Russia.

Such a step would require Putin’s approval and, technically, a vote by the Russian parliament, although the ultimate outcome is not in doubt.

Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, announced that he had called an extraordinary session for Monday, signaling that the formal ratification of annexation could occur within days.

Russian state media have reported that Putin is expected to deliver a state of the union speech Friday, during which he could declare Russia’s annexation of the four regions — although Moscow does not fully control any of them, either militarily or politically. Putin could also call for a drastic escalation of the war in Ukraine.

Though the Kremlin has yet to confirm when, or if, Putin might make a public appearance, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement Wednesday saying action would soon be taken to fulfill the “aspirations” of residents of the occupied Ukrainian regions “to be together with Russia.”

But Russia’s attempts to redraw its national borders have not improved its military position, or obscured its recent losses. Ukrainian forces have capitalized on their successful counteroffensive in the northeast and are making further advances, including northwest of Lyman in the Donetsk region, which has been at the center of intense fighting.

The Russian Defense Ministry, in its daily briefing on the war, claimed that a Ukrainian attack had been repelled, but pro-Russian military bloggers took a more pessimistic view.

“The situation on this front is becoming tenser every day,” said war correspondent Semyon Pegov, whose WarGonzo Telegram channel has more than a million followers.

Pegov added that Ukrainian artillery fire was disrupting the Russian forces’ last logistical supply route to Lyman and that Ukrainian reconnaissance and sabotage groups had been spotted just a few miles from the town.

If Ukraine captures Lyman, Russian units there risk being surrounded, in what could be another serious blow to Putin’s flagging campaign.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, is scrambling to portray its “special military operation” as a success to a Russian public highly unsettled by Putin’s declaration last week of a “partial” mobilization intended to call up hundreds of thousands of reservists as reinforcements.

Thousands of men, as well as some women working in health care, have been called up, and there have been widespread reports in Russian media of men in their 50s and 60s receiving military summonses, along with fighting-age men who are unfit for service because of health conditions or who should otherwise be legally exempt.

The Russian men fleeing mobilization, and leaving everything behind

The chaotic mobilization has led to a remarkable exodus — more than 200,000 people, many of them young men, have fled the country since the call-up was announced, according to Russia’s neighbors.

With entry to Europe severely limited, caravans of vehicles and people have been lining up at the borders of Georgia and Kazakhstan, which have emerged as two main transit hubs. Russians have reported spending days trying to reach border checkpoints, in some cases running out of gas, food and water. Those who cross into neighboring countries often have nowhere to stay, and no way to get around, as border communities struggle to deal with the rush of arrivals.

“It’s just hell there,” said Yana, a 28-year-old woman from Moscow who had crossed into Georgia by bicycle Tuesday night with her boyfriend. They had waited for three days near the Verkhny Lars checkpoint. Yana spoke to The Washington Post on the condition she be identified only by her first name, for fear of reprisals.

European leaders blame Russian ‘sabotage’ after Nord Stream explosions

With few, if any, seats available on commercial flights out of Russia in coming days, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow on Wednesday repeated a warning that all American citizens should leave the country.

“U.S. citizens should not travel to Russia and those residing or traveling in Russia should depart Russia immediately while limited commercial travel options remain,” the embassy had said in a statement Tuesday. “The U.S. Embassy has severe limitations on its ability to assist U.S. citizens, and conditions, including transportation options, may suddenly become even more limited.”

The governments of Bulgaria and Poland have issued similar warnings, urging their citizens to leave Russia.

The U.S. Embassy also reminded citizens with dual U.S.-Russian citizenship that they could be conscripted. “Russia may refuse to acknowledge dual nationals’ U.S. citizenship, deny their access to U.S. consular assistance, prevent their departure from Russia, and conscript dual nationals for military service,” the embassy said.

Beatriz Rios in Brussels and Alex Horton in Washington contributed to this report.

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