French foreign minister visits Ukraine for third time as West condemns Russian 'referendums'

AP - Efrem Lukatsky

French foreign minister Catherine Colonna was in Kyiv Tuesday on an unannounced visit to Ukraine in a show of support for the country invaded by Russia. This comes as the EU said it would sanction those involved in organising "illegal" Russian referendums to annex four eastern regions of Ukraine.

"Good morning Ukraine, it's good to be back," she wrote on Twitter earlier on Tuesday, posting a picture of herself walking in Kyiv with the French ambassador to Ukraine Etienne de Poncins.

It's the minister's third visit since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

During her visit, Colonna met with her Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba and with Ukraine's top prosecutor Andriy Kostin.

The minister said her trip was intended to demonstrate France's solidarity with the Ukainian people and to support Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

A boat for Ukraine

Her visit "underlines the strengthening of the support provided by France, both in terms of the supply of defense equipment and the fight against impunity and on the financial and humanitarian levels", the ministry statement said prior to the trip.

It made reference to the "A boat for Ukraine" operation set to leave Marseille on 28 September with "more than 1,000 tonnes of aid on board".

She also announced that France will bear the €14 million transport and distribution costs of a cargo of cereals offered by Ukraine to Somalia, threatened by famine.

France has already created a unit of investigators responsible for centralising files investigating suspicions of war crimes in Ukraine.

Composed of a dozen investigators, it is already handling seven cases involving French nationals, including the death of French journalist Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff and that of Franco-Irish journalist Pierre Zekrzewski. It is also accepting legal complaints made by Ukrainian refugees in France.

Later in the day, Colonna held talks with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky and visited a military airport in the city of Gostomel, north of Kyiv.

Her visit comes as Moscow is wrapping up the fifth and final day of annexation referendums for four eastern Ukrainian regions to become part of Russia, votes denounced by Kyiv and its Western allies.

'Travesty'

French President Emmanuel Macron called the referendums a "travesty" and "provocation", speaking on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last week.

The G7 countries have promised to "never recognize" the results of these annexation referendums, while Washington has promised a "swift and severe" response through additional economic sanctions.

The UK government has already sanctioned 92 Russian individuals and entities for their various roles in the voting.

"Sham referendums held at the barrel of a gun cannot be free or fair and we will never recognise their results," Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the EU is also set to sanction organisers of the referendums in Donetsk and Lugansk in the east and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south.

"There would be consequences for all people who participate in the illegal, illegitimate referendums," Peter Stano, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, told journalists.

The Kremlin warned Tuesday that votes held in Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine to join Russia would have security implications, with officials in Moscow recently threatening the use of nuclear weapons.

"The legal situation will radically change from the point of view of international law and that will also have consequences for security in these territories," the Kremlin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Influx of Russians in Georgia

Meanwhile, the number of Russians arriving daily in neighbouring Georgia has nearly doubled since President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilisation for the war in Ukraine, officials in Tbilisi said Tuesday.

The Caucasus country has been a major destination for Russians fleeing since the war began on 24 February.

The Kremlin said it wanted to recruit around 300,000 men.

"Four to five days ago 5,000-6,000 (Russians) were arriving in Georgia daily. The number has grown to some 10,000 per day," Georgia's interior minister Vakhtang Gomelauri told journalists.

On Tuesday, the local interior ministry in a Russian region that borders Georgia said there was a back-up of around 5,500 cars waiting to reach the Georgian border.