A view shows banners and constructions for a stage ahead of an expected event near St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square in central Moscow, Russia, on Wednesday. Reuters
On Moscow's Red Square, a stage with giant video screens has been set up, with billboards proclaiming "Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson — Russia!"
The head of the upper house of the Russian parliament said it could consider the incorporation of the four partially occupied regions on Oct. 4, three days before President Vladimir Putin's 70th birthday.
The Russian-installed administrations of the four provinces have formally asked Putin to incorporate them into Russia, which Russian officials have suggested is a formality.
A woman walks past a billboard depicting Russian passport in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, on Wednesday. AP
"This should happen within a week," Rodion Miroshnik, the Russia-installed ambassador to Moscow of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, told the RIA state news agency.
"The main thing has already happened — the referendum has taken place. Therefore, let’s say: the locomotive has already started and it’s unlikely to be stopped."
To annex the territories, which represent about 15% of Ukraine, some sort of treaty will need to be struck and ratified by the Russian parliament, which is controlled by Putin allies. The areas will then be seen as part of Russia and its nuclear umbrella will extend to them.
Putin has warned he would use nuclear weapons to protect Russian territory from attack.
Residents who escaped to Ukrainian-held areas in recent days have told of people being forced to mark ballots in the street by roving officials at gunpoint. Footage filmed during the exercise showed Russian-installed officials taking ballot boxes from house to house with armed men in tow.
A Ukranian armored vehicle moves along a street in Kramatorsk, Donetsk region, on Wednesday. AFP
"They can announce anything they want. Nobody voted in the referendum except a few people who switched sides. They went from house to house but nobody came out," said Lyubomir Boyko, 43, from Golo Pristan, a village in Russian-occupied Kherson province.
Russia says voting was voluntary, in line with international law, and that turnout was high. The referendums and notion of annexations has been rejected globally, as was Russia's 2014 takeover of Crimea from Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sought to rally international support against annexation in a series of calls with foreign leaders, including those of Britain, Canada, Germany and Turkey.
"Thank you all for your clear and unequivocal support. Thank you all for understanding our position," Zelensky said in a late-night video address.
The United States has unveiled a $1.1 billion weapons package for Ukraine that includes 18 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers, accompanying munitions, various types of counter drone systems and radar systems. The announcement brings the U.S. security aid to $16.2 billion.
The United States has also said it would also impose new sanctions on Russia for the referendums and the European Union's executive proposed more sanctions, but the bloc's 27 member countries will need to overcome their own differences to implement them.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would need to keep fighting until it had taken control of all of Donetsk. About 40% is still under Ukrainian control.
Women hang a Russian flag at their shop a day after voting in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, on Wednesday. AP
Russia has announced it will mobilise some 300,000 reservists to bolster its forces in Ukraine. The conscription drive has sent thousands of Russian men fleeing to other countries.
On the ground, Ukraine and Russian forces are engaged in heavy fighting, especially in the Donetsk region, where the governor said six civilians were killed in Russian attacks on Wednesday.
Over the past 24 hours, Russia launched three missile and eight air strikes, carried out more than 82 attacks from rocket salvo systems on military and civilian sites, Ukraine’s military said early on Thursday.
Ukraine’s air force carried out 16 strikes on Wednesday, damaging or destroying a number of Russian positions, while ground forces destroyed two command posts, it said.
Valentyn Reznichenko, governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, said three people were killed in Russian shelling of Dnipro, the region’s capital, including a 12-year-old girl, and more than 60 buildings were damaged.
"The rescuers carried her out of the damaged house where was just sleeping when a Russian missile hit," he said on his Telegram channel.
Reuters was not able to verify battlefield reports.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi — in comments made to his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba at the UN General Assembly Friday — said the "sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected".
The United States was also preparing a new round of sanctions against Russia should it annex Ukrainian territory and a $1.1 billion arms package for Ukraine that will be announced soon, US officials said.
Governor Dmytro Zhyvytskyy posted photographs of the charred shell of a four-story building and rescuers searching rubble. In a later Facebook post, he said many Russian soldiers and some local residents also were killed during the fighting on Sunday.
Kathy Lueders, who heads the agency's human spaceflight program, told reporters on a call that operations on the research platform were proceeding "nominally" and "we're not getting any indications at a working level that our counterparts are not committed."
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