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In two more staged votes, Russian parliament moves to ratify annexation

A bus passes in front of the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, where lawmakers voted Monday to ratify President Vladimir Putin's illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions. (Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia’s rubber-stamp lower house of parliament, the State Duma, unanimously approved President Vladimir Putin’s bills on Monday, according to Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, formalizing the illegal seizure of four regions of Ukraine in a vote that was never in doubt.

The upper house, Russia’s Federation Council, is expected on Tuesday to formalize the annexations, which violate international law, and the measures will then be signed by Putin. The moves signal to Ukraine and its supporters that Moscow sees the seizures as irreversible.

The votes took place as video emerged of Ukrainian forces planting their flag in Myrolyubivka, a settlement in the Kherson region, after Ukraine gained more ground overnight in counteroffensives. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry later published video of Ukrainian forces raising the national flag in another settlement, Zolota Balka, in the Kherson region.

“[R]ussians control less territories in Ukraine each day,” the ministry tweeted in English on Monday evening.

The votes are a formality — part of the Kremlin’s contrived political theater designed to create a veneer of legitimacy for its domestic audience. President Biden, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and other leaders have denounced Putin’s annexations as a flagrant violation of international law that will never be accepted.

Each chamber of the Russian parliament is stuffed with loyalists, with even nominal opposition parties tightly controlled by the Kremlin, in a faux democracy that is supposed to, at least superficially, resemble a multiparty system. In practice, like Russia’s court system, it follows the Kremlin’s orders.

The illegal annexation of the Ukrainian regions of Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk, condemned by leaders around the world, is expected to be recognized only by a handful of states with close ties to Russia.

Voronezh

BELARUS

RUSSIA

Four regions

where staged

referendums

on joining Russia

were held

Chernihiv

Belgorod

Sumy

Valuyki

Kyiv

Kharkiv

LUHANSK

Lyman

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 Oct. 2

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

LUHANSK

Poltava

Cherkasy

Lyman

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 Oct. 2

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 on

joining Russia

were held

BEL.

Chernihiv

Belgorod

Sumy

Kyiv

Kharkiv

LUHANSK

Cherkasy

Lyman

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

Underscoring the legal absurdity of Putin’s move, the Kremlin remained vague Monday about the areas it is annexing. It is clear that its claims extend beyond the areas under Russian control — a reality evidenced by the Ukrainian military’s success in pushing Russian forces from the strategically important city of Lyman in the Donetsk region.

Zelensky hails advances as open recriminations intensify in Russian media

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would “consult” local populations on the exact borders of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, despite having just staged referendums in those regions. He offered no detail on the form of consultation but ruled out more referendums.

It was not clear how the so-called annexation treaties signed by Putin on Friday could be portrayed by Russia as valid when borders of the territories being seized were not even fixed.

Adding to the confusion, a prominent Russian lawmaker, Pavel Krasheninnikov, head of the State Duma’s Committee on State Building and Legislation, said the Kherson annexation would extend beyond the region’s borders to include parts of the Mykolaiv region.

In two other regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, the borders will be those declared by the two regions in 2014, when they proclaimed themselves independent from Ukraine after Moscow orchestrated separatist uprisings there, claiming swaths of territory it did not hold. Ambiguities persist, because neither the Russian military nor the Kremlin’s political proxies fully control either of those regions.

Those uprisings followed Moscow’s invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, after Ukraine’s popular revolt known as the Maidan Revolution ousted a pro-Russian president.

The annexation process mirrors the takeover of Crimea, which was widely condemned globally but cheered in Russia as righting a historical mistake. After Russia seized Crimea, Putin’s popularity rating soared to record levels.

But the new annexation of Ukrainian land, amid cascading Russian military failures and doubts of a Russian victory, has not evoked the same euphoric triumphalism.

Instead, key Kremlin propagandists are sullen and belligerent, the elite are worried, and polls show that the population is fearful, with support for continuing the war declining sharply after Putin announced a military mobilization drive last month.

In 2014, only one member of the Duma, Ilya Ponomarev, voted against the annexation of Crimea. He left Russia soon afterward and now lives in Ukraine.

There were discrepancies in Monday’s votes in the Duma. Although 408 lawmakers attended the Duma session Monday, according to preliminary registration data on the parliamentary website, 413 votes were registered for the Donetsk region to join Russia, 412 for Luhansk to join, 411 for Kherson and 409 for Zaporizhzhia. No votes against the annexations were recorded, and Volodin said the votes were unanimous, attributing the discrepancies in the totals to a “technical failure.”

“Do not count the votes one plus, one minus,” he said.

Their loved ones are Ukrainian medics — and Russian prisoners of war

Russia’s Constitutional Court ruled Sunday that so-called treaties on the absorption of the regions were compatible with Russia’s constitution. Late last month, Russia staged referendums in the four Ukrainian regions, with electoral officials going house to house with armed soldiers, observing people as they marked ballot papers.

Putin’s seizure of the regions marked a major escalation in the war, reinforced by Russian threats to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine and the announced mobilization of about 300,000 more Russian men to fight.

The European Union on Monday summoned Russia’s chargé d’affaires to protest the annexation of the four Ukrainian regions. Lithuania ordered Russia’s top diplomat there to leave the country within five days, while a number of European nations — including France, Italy, Poland, Austria and Estonia — summoned Russian ambassadors to protest.

Russia does not fully control the regions politically or militarily, but once the annexation process is formalized, Moscow said it would deem Ukraine’s offensives to regain its own territory attacks on Russia itself. This is widely seen as a pretext for intensifying brutality to try to force Ukraine to capitulate, including potential new missile attacks on major cities and key civilian infrastructure.

Russia has attacked civilian convoys in recent days, killing dozens of people near the town of Kupyansk in the northeastern Kharkiv region and near Zaporizhzhia, the regional capital.

Putin’s escalation of the war followed humiliating losses last month when Russian forces retreated from the Kharkiv region. Such scenes were repeated over the weekend when Russian forces were surrounded in Lyman, a strategic hub in Donetsk, one of the regions being annexed. Nearly encircled, Russian troops had to break away under heavy Ukrainian fire. Russia also lost more ground Sunday in the Kherson region.

The loss of Lyman has led to unprecedented scathing public criticism of military commanders from powerful figures, notably Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who have forces fighting Ukraine in the war. With Putin weakened, the jostling and outspoken criticism could also be signs of an emerging political power struggle.

Peskov did not rebuke Kadyrov for his public attacks on the military Monday, saying that the Chechen leader has made a major contribution to the war on Ukraine. “However, even at the hardest moments, any assessments should probably be free of emotions,” he cautioned. “After all, we prefer to make balanced and impartial assessments.”

But there were signs that Moscow was not pleased with the developments. Pro-Kremlin Russian media outlet RBC reported that a new commander had been appointed to lead Russia’s troubled western military district, after a series of retreats and setbacks.

Lt. Gen. Roman Berdnikov replaced Col. Gen. Alexander Zhuravlev, according to RBC, which quoted an unnamed source familiar with the change. The Defense Ministry website still states that Zhuravlev is the commander.

During debate on constitutional amendments required to formalize the annexations, faction leaders in the State Duma extolled the “historic” decision. Sergei Mironov, leader of A Just Russia, called for a massive military escalation, demanding the destruction of electrical, rail and other infrastructure in Ukraine.

“Let’s destroy the entire infrastructure of Nazi Ukraine,” including electrical substations, power plants and automobile and railroad bridges, he declared. “By destroying this infrastructure, we save the lives of our soldiers and the lives of millions of citizens who are just becoming citizens of our country.”

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said Europe is gathering a “Fourth Reich” against Russia and called the annexations an important step to build Russian power. He also spoke favorably about Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who praised the “patience, courage and will” of the Russian people and did not call himself a Georgian but “a Russian of Georgian origin.”

In Ukraine, Ihor Murashov, head of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, was released after being abducted by gunmen Friday, according to Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Natalia Abbakumova, Mary Ilyushina and Missy Ryan contributed to this report.

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