Ukraine live briefing: West condemns staged referendums; U.S. to send more long-range rocket systems

A woman holds her ballot as she leaves a voting booth during a referendum staged by Russia in Melitopol, southern Ukraine, on Tuesday.
A woman holds her ballot as she leaves a voting booth during a referendum staged by Russia in Melitopol, southern Ukraine, on Tuesday. (AP)

Russia concluded staged referendums in parts of four Ukrainian regions under its control this week. The votes were illegal under international law, with reports of residents coerced into voting. Western leaders have condemned the staged referendums, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Moscow of engaging in a “diabolical scheme” to annex Ukraine’s territory.

The United States on Wednesday announced a new package of military aid to Ukraine. The $1.1 billion package is to include 18 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, The Washington Post’s Alex Horton reports.

The explosions that damaged the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines, causing leaks into the Baltic Sea, appear to be the “result of a deliberate act,” according to European Union statement released Wednesday. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said investigations are underway into what she called “sabotage action,” vowing that deliberate disruption of European energy infrastructure would “lead to the strongest possible response.”

Here’s the latest on the war and its impact across the globe.

E.U. warns of ‘robust’ response against sabotage after Nord Stream blasts

Nord Stream explosions

  • Several European leaders said the explosions that caused leaks in the undersea natural gas pipelines appeared to be sabotage, as the E.U. put out a statement vowing to respond. “These incidents are not a coincidence and affect us all,” the bloc said. Five European officials with direct knowledge of security discussions said it is widely assumed that Russia was responsible.
  • The Kremlin denied responsibility for the explosions, saying it was not in Russia’s economic interest to damage the pipelines. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was “absurd” to blame Moscow, adding that “this is a big problem for us.” He accused the United States of making “super profits” from European energy disruption and suggested that Washington was behind the blasts. Speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter, a U.S. official said the United States had nothing to do with any attack on the Nord Stream pipelines, calling the idea “preposterous.”
  • Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Wednesday that Russia would convene a U.N. Security Council meeting on the Nord Stream explosions, which she blamed on the United States. “On February 7, 2022, Joe Biden said that Nord Stream would not move forward if Russia invaded Ukraine,” Zakharova said on Telegram. “If Russia invades, if tanks or troops cross the Ukrainian border again, then there will be no more Nord Stream 2,” she quoted Biden as saying.
  • Norway said it would increase security around its oil and gas infrastructure, while Swedish, Danish and German authorities have all opened investigations into the blasts. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he met Wednesday with Denmark’s defense minister to discuss the “sabotage” and emphasized that “protection of critical infrastructure” in NATO countries remains paramount. Russia said it would consider participating in a joint investigation with European officials into the incidents but complained that it has not been approached.

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

Russian annexation

  • Russian state media said the staged referendums were in line with international law and showed that voters in all four Ukrainian territories overwhelmingly favor joining Russia. In Donetsk, 99 percent of those voting favored accession, 98 percent in Luhansk, 93 percent in Zaporizhzhia and 87 percent in Kherson, according to Russia’s state-run Tass news agency. Western leaders have called the staged votes a “sham” and say they are invalid amid reports of voter coercion and other violations. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, it claimed that 97 percent of those voting in a referendum supported joining Russia.
  • The Moscow-backed leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk are traveling to Moscow to “complete the legal part” of their accession to Russia, Luhansk leader Leonid Pasechnik said Wednesday on Telegram. The pro-Russian leaders of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia also said they had appealed to the Kremlin to proceed with making their territories part of Russia. The speaker of Russia’s State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, said absorbing the four regions could take place on Oct. 3 or 4.

What to know about Russia’s plans to annex territory in Ukraine

  • The United States will put forward a U.N. Security Council resolution on the annexations, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said. The resolution will “condemn Russia’s sham ‘referenda,’ ” she added, and call on all member states “not to recognize any altered status of Ukraine.” Zelensky said Russia should be suspended “from all international organizations,” including the United Nations.
  • Canada will impose sanctions on individuals and entities “complicit” in annexation attempts, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said. His country “will not ever recognize the results of Russia’s illegitimate referendums or its attempted, illegal annexation of Ukrainian territories.”
  • The E.U. also announced a new sanctions package, set to target individuals involved in the organization of the referendums in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, as well as high-ranking officials participating in the recruitment process launched by the Kremlin last week meant to mobilize up to 300,000 soldiers, The Washington Post’s Beatriz Rios reports.

Battlefield Updates

  • Ukrainian authorities in Nikopol said Russian rockets hit the southern city overnight, striking buildings, a school and power lines, according to the Associated Press. The head of the local military administration, Valentyn Reznichenko, said no casualties were immediately reported.
  • Russian fire killed five people and injured 10 others over the past 24 hours in the eastern region of Donetsk. Ukrainian regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said the attacks killed four people in Kurakhove and one in Bakhmut.
  • Ukrainian advances near the eastern hub of Lyman have slowed, the British Defense Ministry said in an intelligence briefing. “Russia is mounting a more substantive defense than previously, likely because the Ukrainian advance now threatens parts of Luhansk,” officials said, “as voting in the referendum on accession to the Russian Federation closes.” The Defense Ministry added that Russia is continuing its advance near Bakhmut in Donbas while facing “severe pressure on its northern and southern flanks.”

Global Impact

  • The Pentagon has announced another $1.1 billion in long-term military aid to Ukraine, including 18 additional HIMARS, precision long-range artillery systems, 20 multi-mission radars, 40 trucks and 80 trailers to transport heavy equipment and more. U.S. defense officials said however that procurement of the weapons would take a few years.
  • Italian far-right leader Giorgia Meloni pledged “loyal support” to Ukraine. Meloni, who is poised to become Italy’s first female prime minister, vowed to support “the cause of freedom” for the Ukrainian people, while Zelensky tweeted his welcome after her recent election success. Meloni has consistently backed Ukraine, but other figures in her coalition, including Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi, have had warmer relations with Putin.
  • Despite Russia’s recent threats, there is “no practical evidence” that the country plans to use nuclear weapons imminently, CIA Director William J. Burns said in an interview with CBS. He called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric “reckless and deeply irresponsible” and said it was not clear if he was bluffing. But the United States must nonetheless take the threats “very seriously,” he said.
  • The U.S. Embassy in Moscow urged dual nationals to leave Russia. Following Putin’s order for the partial mobilization of Russian troops, the embassy said the Kremlin “may refuse to acknowledge dual nationals’ U.S. citizenship,” or Russia could prevent their departure and conscript dual nationals for military service. It said U.S. citizens “should depart Russia immediately” while limited commercial travel options still exist.

From our correspondents

The Russian men fleeing mobilization, and leaving everything behind. Since Putin’s shock announcement last week of a “partial” military mobilization of Russian reservists, thousands of Russian men of military age have fled the country, dashing to borders and scrambling for flights to avoid fighting in Ukraine.

“The main task is to save your life,” one 42-year-old Russian construction worker told The Washington Post after he fled through two countries in four days to escape the new order. Now in Turkey, he conceded that he had no idea where to go next. The emerging scale of the exodus has raised questions about Moscow’s ability to sustain its war effort.

Kareem Fahim, John Hudson, Zeynep Karatas and Beatriz Rios contributed to this report.