Ukraine briefing: Putin to formalize annexation of Ukrainian territories after staged referendums

Workers hang Russian flags at an apartment building in the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, controlled by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, on Wednesday.
Workers hang Russian flags at an apartment building in the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, controlled by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, on Wednesday. (AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to sign treaties on Friday that would claim to annex four areas of Ukraine, as separatist leaders from Ukraine arrived in Moscow for what they called “a historic decision” to join Russia. Staged referendums — illegal under international law and widely condemned by Western countries — concluded earlier this week in occupied parts of Ukraine’s Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.

Late on Thursday, Putin signed two decrees recognizing Kherson and Zaporizhzhia as “independent” territories, a step toward annexation. Russia already recognizes Donetsk and Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine, as sovereign republics. Russian state television has been airing an on-screen clock that counts down the hours until Putin signs the treaties.

“The United States will never, never, never recognize Russia’s claims on Ukraine sovereign territory,” President Biden said Thursday, at a summit in Washington between the United States and Pacific island countries. “The so-called referendum was a sham, an absolute sham.”

Explosions that damaged the Nord Stream pipelines and caused natural gas to leak into the Baltic Sea this week appeared to be “the result of deliberate, reckless, and irresponsible acts of sabotage,” NATO “said Thursday. It vowed to meet any attacks against its members’ infrastructure “with a united and determined response.” Meanwhile, Putin described the incidents as “an act of international terrorism.”

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

Russian annexation

  • Separatist leaders from Russian-occupied portions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are in Moscow to complete the procedure of Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory, Kirill Stremousov, a Russian-installed official from Kherson, said in a Telegram post. He shared a group photo of the arrival and called it a “happy ending.”
  • Putin is set to address lawmakers Friday at 3 p.m. local time (8 a.m. Eastern time). The ceremony will take place in the Grand Kremlin Palace to sign “agreements on the accession of new territories into the Russian Federation,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. The inflammatory move appears likely to slam the door on diplomacy for years to come and almost certainly ensures further escalation of the war, with Kyiv vowing to fight to reclaim all of its lands.
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)
  • The annexation requires a number of procedural sign-offs within Russia, including votes from both houses in Russia’s parliament, the State Duma and the Federation Council, to approve the treaty, as happened when Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014. The United States, Canada and the European Union have all vowed never to recognize the annexed land as part of Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Kyiv was working with Western allies to firm up support against annexation.
  • The White House has said it is working with “allies and partners to impose additional economic costs on Russia,” should annexation go ahead. “You can expect additional measures from us in the coming days,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said this week.
  • United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said Russia’s annexation plans “cannot be reconciled with the international legal framework; it stands against everything the international community is meant to stand for; it flouts the purposes and principles of the United Nations; it is a dangerous escalation; it has no place in the modern world.” In a Thursday news briefing, he said that Russia, as one of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, has a “particular responsibility” to respect the U.N. charter.

Nord Stream explosions

  • A total of four leaks in the Nord Stream pipelines have been reported, after the Swedish coast guard confirmed Thursday that there were two leaks in Sweden’s economic zone and two in Denmark’s. Investigations into the cause of the explosions are continuing.
  • The E.U. and several nations suspect sabotage and have blamed Russia, which denies causing any damage to the underwater energy infrastructure in the Baltic Sea, which supplies gas to Western Europe. NATO said Thursday that current evidence shows the leaks were “the result of deliberate, reckless, and irresponsible acts of sabotage.” The alliance vowed it would defend against “hybrid tactics.”
  • Putin called it “unprecedented sabotage, in fact, an act of international terrorism against the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 gas pipelines,” in a phone call with Turkey’s president, according to a Kremlin readout.
  • Russia has denied any involvement and blames the United States. Its Foreign Ministry said Thursday that the leaks occurred in the trade and economic zones of “NATO-centric countries” that are completely “controlled by the U.S. intelligence services.” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said: “This looks like an act of terrorism, possibly on a state level. … It is very difficult to imagine that such an act of a terrorism could have happened without the involvement of a state of some kind.” The Kremlin has said it was not in Russia’s economic interest to damage the pipelines and called for a U.N. Security Council meeting. A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the United States had nothing to do with any attack, calling the idea “preposterous.”
  • The damage to the Nord Stream pipelines could result in the largest single release of methane into the atmosphere ever recorded, experts said. The Danish Energy Agency said sections of the damaged pipes contained 778 million cubic meters of natural gas, which, if it reached the atmosphere, would be equivalent to about 1/1,000th of estimated annual global methane emissions, according to calculations by scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Gas Hydrates Project.

Battlefield updates

  • The United States will provide a $1.1 billion weapons package to Ukraine over the next few years, including 18 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers, a “core component of Ukraine’s fighting force in the future,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters Wednesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon. Defense officials said nearly 20 other nations have also agreed to accelerate arms production to replace Ukraine’s Soviet-era equipment with modern systems used by NATO.
  • Russian lawmakers have lashed out at those fleeing to avoid military conscription. Eligible citizens who are registered with the military are “forbidden to leave … without the permission of the military commissariats,” Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma, said on Telegram. Thousands of men are scrambling to the border or rushing for flights to avoid being conscripted to fight in Ukraine. “The better off and well educated are over-represented amongst those attempting to leave Russia,” Britain’s Defense Ministry said Thursday in a daily update.
  • At least 19 people were injured when Russian strikes hit Dnipropetrovsk, regional governor Valentyn Reznichenko said. He said the attack occurred around 8 a.m. local time and targeted industrial infrastructure and damaged homes, power lines and buildings with cluster shells. The Washington Post could not independently verify the account.
  • Russia continues to send “newly-mobilized and undertrained recruits” to reinforce depleted units in Ukraine, according to an assessment from the Institute for the Study of War think tank. The Russian Defense Ministry also said Wednesday that training for mobilized reservists has started in multiple places across the country. But readying those new troops will be challenging for the Kremlin, a U.S. official told reporters, given the logistics necessary to supply and train them.

Global impact

  • Finland said it will close its borders to Russian tourists at midnight Friday, citing changes to Europe’s security situation since the mobilization of Russian troops and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Finnish government said that Russia’s promotion of business and increasing tourism to Finland “endangers Finland’s international status and international relations,” the Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a statement.
  • Actor Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars,” became ambassador for Ukraine’s fundraising platform United24. “He is the first ambassador to help raise funds to support our defenders, the Drone Army. This is a difficult but very important mission. Mark, we are sure you will definitely handle it,” Zelensky wrote Thursday on Telegram, announcing the appointment.
  • Russian billionaire Oleg Vladimirovich Deripaska was indicted on a charge of sanctions evasion, the Justice Department announced. He is accused of using an intermediary to facilitate the $3 million sale of a music studio in California while under sanctions from the United States.
  • Two doctors, including a U.S. Army major, of Rockville, Md., were accused of leaking confidential medical information in “efforts to assist Russia in connection with the conflict in Ukraine,” federal prosecutors said. The two — Anna Gabrielian, 36, and her spouse, Jamie Lee Henry, 39 — passed along information related to at least five people who were patients at a U.S. military base in North Carolina, where Henry was stationed. Those included the spouse of someone working at the Office of Naval Intelligence, and a current Defense Department employee.

From our correspondents

NATO decries pipeline “sabotage” amid efforts to measure environmental impact: The NATO military alliance has become the latest international organization to sound alarms after explosions at the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea.

Images released Thursday by the Swedish coast guard show a large mass of methane bubbles on the sea surface emanating from the leaks.

Cautioning that it was a preliminary estimate, Bjorn Lund, director of the Swedish National Seismic Network, told The Post’s Ellen Francis and Meg Kelly that the strength of the larger second blast was equivalent to 100 to 200 kilograms (220 to 440 pounds) of TNT. With the consensus among European leaders that sabotage was involved, suspicion is increasingly falling on Russia, which has denied all responsibility.

Amar Nadhir, Mary Ilyushina and Isabelle Khurshudyan contributed to this report.