With staged referendums in Ukraine complete, Russia begins the annexation process
MOSCOW — Moscow-backed separatist leaders in occupied areas of Ukraine moved quickly to issue formal appeals to join the Russian Federation on Wednesday — just hours after claiming overwhelming numbers of people there had chosen to join Russia in a series of highly controversial referendums.
The vote was widely condemned by Ukraine and its Western partners as a violation of international law — with ballots cast at gunpoint.
In Donetsk, the pro-Russian separatist leader Denis Pushilin praised a "colossal result" that purportedly saw 99.23% of votes in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic back an initiative to join Russia.
"To say we didn't expect such a result simply wouldn't be true," said Pushilin in a press conference in which he shrugged off Western criticism. "We've made history," he added.
Pro-Russian officials in the occupied territories of Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia announced similar returns — claiming between 87% to 98% of residents had voted in favor of joining Russia.
The Kremlin now seems all but guaranteed to attempt a repeat of its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine following a similar referendum in 2014. The move was never internationally recognized and triggered Western sanctions.
"Welcome home to Russia!" proclaimed former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, now a member of Russia's Security Council, in a post on social media.
Yet the exact Russian timetable for absorbing the new regions remained unclear.
There were reports Wednesday that separatist leaders were en route to Moscow for consultations.
President Vladimir Putin is expected to address the Federal Council — Russia's upper house of parliament — in a speech Friday.
Meanwhile, several senior Russian lawmakers insisted that formal legislative sessions to take up annexation could wait until next week — which could suggest that Moscow might be eager to shore up its military defenses in Ukraine first.
The vote unfolded as Russia moved to mobilize an additional 300,000 troops to stem a Ukrainian counteroffensive that has seized back vast swaths of territory in the country's east.
Western officials have pointed to that timing as evidence of Kremlin desperation to solidify Russian gains before they evaporated completely.
Meanwhile, Russian officials have insisted the newly incorporated lands would be entitled to full protection under Russian military doctrine — even threatening the use of Russia's nuclear arsenal in an effort to force Kyiv and the West to accept the new boundaries.
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