Vladimir Putin has signed decrees paving the way for the occupied Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia to be formally annexed into Russia.
On Friday, the Russian president is expected to sign into law the annexations of four Ukrainian regions – Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk – where Russia held fake referendums over the last week in order to claim a mandate for the territorial claims.
Thursday night’s decrees, made public by the Kremlin, said Putin had recognised Kherson and Zaporizhzhia as independent territories. This is an intermediary step needed before Putin can go ahead with plans to unilaterally declare on Friday that they are part of Russia.
In February, Putin recognised the independence of the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The plan to sign treaties on Friday annexing the territories in occupied Ukraine will mark a major escalation of Russia’s seven-month-old war. Putin has said he is ready to defend those territories using all available means, indicating he would be willing to resort to a nuclear strike in order to avert Ukraine’s efforts to liberate its sovereign territory.
Putin is seen to be passing a point of no return that will prolong the war and scuttle even the remotest chance of negotiations by obliging Russia to fight in perpetuity for Ukrainian territory, some of which it does not currently control.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia would be annexing itself to a “catastrophe” and vowed that Moscow would get no new territory. “We know how to react to any Russian actions,” the Ukrainian president said on the Telegram messaging app.
The Russian government spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said the signing of the “treaties on the accession of territories into the Russian Federation” would take place at 3pm local time in the Kremlin’s St George’s Hall. Putin would deliver a “major” speech at the ceremony.
The announcement set off a fresh round of international condemnation. “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,” the UN secretary general, António Guterres, told reporters.
Joe Biden said that the US would never recognise Russia’s claims on Ukraine’s territory, and denounced the fake referendums as an “absolute sham,” saying, “The results were manufactured in Moscow.”
“Putin is raising the stakes,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst and founder of R.Politik. “It’s a demonstration that Russia is not ready to negotiate, not ready to make any concessions, and is ready to use any means at its disposal to achieve its strategic goals. Including nuclear weapons. The Russian leadership has said this directly without any hesitation.”
The territories were not named formally but Kremlin pool reporters said four treaties would be signed, corresponding to the four regions Russia has indicated it plans to annex.
Putin is expected to make a speech to members of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, at the ceremony. By law, Russia’s Federation Council must approve the treaties before they are signed by Putin but it was not clear when the council was scheduled to meet.
Moscow officials have also begun preparing a venue for a major concert near Red Square on Friday evening. “Together forever,” reads a large banner hanging over a stage that also bears the names of the four Ukrainian regions. State television channels are also displaying a countdown to Friday’s event at the Kremlin.
Putin’s decision was believed to be an attempt to halt a Ukrainian counterattack that has forced Russia to retreat from much of the Kharkiv region and is now threatening to retake more territory in Donetsk. He hopes that the threat of all-out war and a nuclear retaliation will reduce western support for the Ukrainian offensive.
Ukraine and its supporters have decried Putin’s threats as “nuclear blackmail”. In remarks earlier this week, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, vowed to defend and free Ukrainians in the occupied territories.
“This farce in the occupied territory cannot even be called an imitation of referendums,” Zelenskiy said on Tuesday in a video posted on Telegram. “We will act to protect our people: both in the Kherson region, in the Zaporizhzhia region, in the Donbas, in the currently occupied areas of the Kharkiv region, and in the Crimea.”
Ukraine’s presidential office said Zelenskiy had spoken to his Polish counterpart, Andrzej Duda, on Thursday about the international reaction to Russia’s illegal referendums. “We discussed specific steps and measures that we will work on in this context, military and defence cooperation,” Zelenskiy wrote on Telegram.
The two leaders “agreed on the need for a powerful consolidated world reaction to the illegal actions of the Russian Federation, which destroy the foundations of international law”, the statement from Zelenskiy’s office read. “Specific steps and measures that the parties will work on in this context were discussed.”
Zelenskiy also had a call with the outgoing Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, on Thursday afternoon. According to Zelenskiy’s office, the main topic of their discussion was the need for a firm reaction to the fake referendums.
“They are worthless and do not change reality. The territorial integrity of Ukraine will be restored. And our reaction to Russia’s recognition of their results will be very harsh,” Zelenskiy said, according to the statement from his office.
Zelenskiy also said he was convening an “urgent” meeting of the national security council on Friday, with details to be announced later.
The Kremlin does not have full control over many of the territories it is seeking to annex. It is likely it will lay claim to all four Ukrainian regions in their entirety, including several mid-size cities that are not under Russian control. For instance, in the Zaporizhzhia region, local occupation officials claimed that the recent “referendum” included the entire region, including the city of Zaporizhzhia, which had a prewar population of 750,000.
That would mean the Kremlin is obliging the country to fight in perpetuity to defend territories and make advances even while it is on the defensive on the battlefield.
The Kremlin may only reveal the details of which territories it is claiming to annex during the signing ceremony. A state budget revealed on Thursday showed that Russia had earmarked 3.3bn roubles ($56.3m or £51.1m) to rebuild the regions. The damage to the city of Mariupol alone was estimated by its mayor at $14bn.
The annexation will make the chance of a negotiated settlement to end the war even more remote. Russia amended its constitution in 2022 to forbid ceding territory the country has formally annexed.
It was initially seen as a way to prevent a future Russian leader from ceding Crimea, which was annexed in 2014. But the law would also forbid Russia from ceding territories occupied since February or those not currently under Kremlin control.
Ekaterina Schulmann, a Russian political scientist, wrote that after annexation, the “Russian Federation as we knew it will pass into a new phase of its existence, having become a state with a delegitimised border, including fragments that not only won’t be recognised by any state or international organisation de jure, but won’t be controlled by its central administration de facto”.