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Violating international law, Putin to sign annexation of Ukrainian regions

A worker assembles a stage featuring a sign reading “Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson — Russia!” installed in front of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow on Sept. 29. (Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Russian President Vladimir Putin will formally move Friday to seize four Ukrainian regions by signing what the Kremlin is calling “accession treaties,” in defiance of international law and widespread condemnation from world leaders.

The signing ceremony, to take place in the Grand Kremlin Palace, marks Putin’s attempt to annex the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, even though Russia does not fully control them militarily or politically.

Late on Thursday, Putin signed two decrees recognizing Kherson and Zaporizhzhia as “independent" territories, an intermediate step toward annexation. Russia already recognizes Donetsk and Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine, as sovereign republics.

Voronezh

BELARUS

RUSSIA

Four regions

where staged

referendums

on joining Russia

were held

Chernihiv

Belgorod

Sumy

Valuyki

Kyiv

Kharkiv

LUHANSK

Cherkasy

Slovyansk

Luhansk

Dnipro

Donetsk

Kirovohrad

DONETSK

Zaporizhzhia

ZAPORIZHZHIA

Area held

by Russia-

backed

separatists

since 2014

Mariupol

Mykolaiv

Melitopol

KHERSON

MOL.

Kherson

Odessa

RUSSIA

Kerch

CRIMEA

Krasnodar

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

100 MILES

ROM.

Novorossiysk

Sevastopol

Black Sea

Control areas as of Sept. 28

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI’s Critical Threats Project

Ukrainian reclaimed territory

through counteroffensives

Russian-held

areas

Voronezh

BELARUS

Four regions

where staged

referendums on

joining Russia

were held

RUSSIA

Chernihiv

Belgorod

Sumy

Kyiv

Kharkiv

Poltava

LUHANSK

Cherkasy

Kramatorsk

Dnipro

Uman

DONETSK

Zaporizhzhia

ZAPORIZ.

Area held by

Russia-backed

separatists

since 2014

Mykolayiv

Melitopol

KHERSON

Kherson

Odessa

Crimea

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

Sevastopol

100 MILES

Control areas as of Sept. 28

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI’s Critical Threats Project

Ukrainian reclaimed territory

through counteroffensives

Russian-held

areas

Four regions

where staged

referendums

were held on

joining Russia

BEL.

Chernihiv

Belgorod

Sumy

Kyiv

Kharkiv

LUHANSK

Cherkasy

Dnipro

DONETSK

ZAPORIZ.

Mykolayiv

Area held by

Russia-backed

separatists

since 2014

KHERSON

Kherson

Odessa

Crimea

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

100 MILES

Sevastopol

Black Sea

Sources: Institute for the Study of War

The move potentially slams the door on diplomacy for years to come and almost certainly ensures further escalation of the war in Ukraine. Kyiv insists it will fight to reclaim all of its lands, and Western allies are promising to send more weapons and economic assistance.

In a forceful statement Wednesday, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres denounced Russia, warning that the world was at a “moment of peril.”

“Any annexation of a state’s territory by another state resulting from the threat or use of force is a violation of the Principles of the U.N. Charter and international law,” Guterres said. “Any decision to proceed with the annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine would have no legal value and deserves to be condemned.”

Putin’s recent declaration of a partial military mobilization, intended to activate hundreds of thousands of reinforcements for Ukraine, and the alleged sabotage this week of two Nord Stream natural gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea have raised fears that the Russian leader is preparing for a long hybrid conflict with NATO.

Russia has also warned that it could use a nuclear weapon to defend the Ukrainian regions once they are absorbed into Russia, saying it would view an attack on its forces there as an attack on its own territory. Putin could also use such attacks to declare martial law, putting Russia’s economy and society fully on a war footing.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to sign a treaty annexing four areas of Ukraine on Sept. 30 after staged referendums criticized by the West. (Video: Reuters)

Putin’s illegal land grab will leave him further isolated, and trigger new Western sanctions. But he is betting that a long, brutal war will eventually fray Western support for Ukraine and curtail the vital military and economic aid it is providing.

The Russian men fleeing mobilization, and leaving everything behind

One of the few viable diplomatic channels remaining is between Russia and Turkey, but even Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who helped broker a recent prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine, has voiced disapproval of Putin’s recent steps, saying they would “lead to the deepening of instability.”

Erdogan spoke to Putin late Thursday and urged him to give peace negotiations another chance, according to a statement from the Turkish president’s office, though it was probably too late to persuade him to change course.

Russia’s proxy leaders from the partially occupied regions traveled to Moscow Wednesday ahead of the signing of the “accession treaties,” while the state-controlled Rossiya 24 news channel started a countdown clock showing the hours and minutes until Putin’s scheduled announcement at 3 p.m. local time (8 a.m. Eastern).

Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament, meeting Monday and Tuesday, is certain to approve the treaties and then adopt amendments to the constitution to formalize the annexation, in a process mirroring Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Adding a dash of patriotic theater, the Kremlin announced that a gala concert would be held in Red Square on Friday after the signing of the treaties — another echo of 2014, when Putin appeared onstage at a similar event after Russia seized Crimea.

The annexation of Crimea, a popular Russian holiday destination, propelled Putin’s approval rating to a record high 89 percent in 2015. But public sentiment is unlikely to be as strong for the takeover of the four new regions.

Multiple Russian setbacks in the war have exposed the poor shape of Russia’s military and left Putin more vulnerable than at any time in office. He has been criticized from the right by pro-war hawks furious over the military missteps and the bungled mobilization, and from the left by opponents of the war.

More than 200,000 Russians have fled the country in recent days to escape the partial mobilization.

The wave of new Russian soldiers already arriving in Ukraine with relatively little training will probably not be enough for Moscow to launch new offensives and regain ground in the regions it is annexing, according to military experts, but it may allow Russia to hold territory through the winter.

Putin’s approval rating has fallen in the wake of his mobilization announcement, according to opinion survey results released Thursday by the Levada Center, an independent pollster. Given Russia’s authoritarian system, however, his rating remains at levels that would be the envy of any Western politician.

According to the poll, Putin’s approval rating fell to 77 percent from 83 percent the previous month, while his disapproval rating rose to 21 percent from 15 percent.

In a sign of Kremlin alarm, the Russian leader lashed out Thursday at cases of “illegal” mobilization, or the call-up of men who are supposed to be exempt — including students, IT workers, disabled or sick people, and state television journalists.

As military officials rushed to meet targets in the space of a few days, there were many cases — reported prominently on state television — of men being improperly drafted. “It is necessary to deal with each such case separately. And if a mistake is made, I repeat, it must be corrected — to return home those who were called up without proper reason,” Putin said, blaming his underlings.

He also said those being sent to Ukraine must get proper training, after reports that some draftees have been sent to fight with only a few days’ preparation.

The imminent annexation marks perhaps the darkest moment in relations between Russia and the West since the Cold War, following a NATO warning Thursday that damage to two Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea was the result of “reckless and irresponsible acts of sabotage.”

Staged referendums yield expected result as Russia readies annexations

“We, as Allies, have committed to prepare for, deter and defend against the coercive use of energy and other hybrid tactics by state and nonstate actors,” NATO said in a statement. “Any deliberate attack against Allies’ critical infrastructure would be met with a united and determined response.”

In his phone call with Erdogan, Putin called the damage “an act of international terrorism” and said Russia would raise the matter at the U.N. Security Council.

Russian state media aired analysts and pundits saying that the attack could only have been carried out by the United States or Britain. Western analysts, meanwhile, said the sabotage was more likely to have been perpetrated by Russia.

Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, said it was “hard to think who else it could be.” The pipeline attack could be meant as “a general, darker warning about the vulnerability of all underwater pipes and cables should Russia want to inflict more disruption,” he added.

The European Commission on Wednesday recommended an eighth package of sanctions on Russia, including a cap on oil prices, a ban on European nationals serving on the boards of Russian state-owned companies and new bans on exports of high-tech goods to Russia.

But the package still requires the unanimous approval of all 27 European Union countries, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has signaled he would block any new energy sanctions.

The full ramifications of Putin’s annexation declaration are difficult to predict.

In one move, Russia is likely to declare the Sea of Azov to be an internal Russian sea. And Moscow could deploy special police troops to suppress partisan activity in the occupied areas. Kremlin proxies have already phased out Ukraine’s currency and passports in some occupied regions and have effectively forced citizens to accept Russian passports in return for social benefits.

Kareem Fahim in Istanbul and Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.

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