Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday recognized the independence of the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, hours before holding a ceremony to incorporate them into the Russian Federation.
He also signed a similar decree earlier in February, when he recognized two breakaway regions in the east of Ukraine, Luhansk and Donetsk, as independent states.
Putin to hold ceremony for incorporating four Ukrainian regions into Russia
The four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine (Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia) that held so-called "referendums" on joining Russia will be incorporated into the country on Friday, the Kremlin said. Crimea was similarly illegally annexed in 2014, after a similar "referendum."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend a ceremony in the Kremlin at which they will be officially folded into Russia.
Peskov told reporters that the heads of the four regions will sign treaties to join Russia during Friday's ceremony at the Kremlin's St. George's Hall.
Putin will also give a major speech following the signing ceremony in the Kremlin and will meet with Moscow-appointed administrators of the regions.
Ukraine and the West have denounced the votes as a sham and said they will never recognize the Ukrainian regions as being part of Russia.
Here is more news from or concerning the war in Ukraine on September 29:
US lawmakers unite against 'Hurricane Putin'
US lawmakers urged support for Ukraine on Thursday, as the US House of Representatives is set to pass a bill Friday to provide Ukraine with $12.3 billion (approx €12.5 billion) in military and economic assistance.
Lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle have urged support, with Democratic Senator Bob Menedez saying it was important to "continue to support" Ukrainians, and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham saying they were "dealing with Hurricane Putin."
Graham said so after expressing best wishes for those affected by Hurricane Ian.
US slams Russia's 'absolute sham' referenda
US President Joe Biden pledged to "never, never, never" recognize the results of Russia's referenda in Ukraine.
"The so-called referenda was a sham, an absolute sham. The results were manufactured in Moscow," he said as he met Pacific Island leaders in Washington.
"Russia's assault on Ukraine in pursuit of Putin's imperial ambitions is a flagrant violation of the UN Charter and the basic principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity," Biden added.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also accused Moscow of making a "land grab" with the referenda.
"The Kremlin's sham referenda are a futile effort to mask what amounts to a further attempt at a land grab in Ukraine," the top US diplomat said in a statement.
Putin says drafting 'mistakes must be corrected'
A week after he announced partial mobilization, the Russian president has criticized mistakes in the drafting of reservists to fight in Ukraine.
There have been complaints by reservists that they had been drafted despite chronic illnesses, old age or other exemption criteria.
"All mistakes must be corrected," Putin told a meeting of the National Security Council on Thursday, saying those who were mistakenly drafted must return home.
Ukraine calls emergency meeting of security, defense chiefs
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will hold an emergency meeting with top security, political and defense officials on Friday, following the Kremlin's announcement of plans by Russia to annex four Ukrainian regions.
The National Security and Defense Council includes, among others, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the defense, foreign and prime ministers, and the head of the Ukrainian Security Service. It is tasked with working with the president on developing and coordinating national security policy.
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of the council, said "important and I believe fundamental decisions for our country" would be taken at the meeting, but did not give further details.
Zelenskyy has said repeatedly that the so-called "referendums" were illegal and warned of a robust Ukrainian response.
Pope Francis says he is involved in prisoner exchange efforts in Ukraine
Pope Francis said he was involved in efforts to organize a prisoner exchange in Ukraine, although it was unclear what role he played. He mentioned his efforts while addressing a meeting with Jesuits in Kazakhstan last week, according to La Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit magazine.
The pope said he receives a steady number of visits from Ukrainian people and officials who tell him about the war. One was a military officer who focused on prisoner exchanges and brought him a list of more than 300 prisoners.
The pope said the officer "asked me to do something to make an exchange possible. I immediately called the Russian ambassador to ask if something could be done, if a prisoner exchange could be expedited."
Ukraine and Russia exchanged 270 prisoners of war last week after previous swaps earlier in the war.
Finland will shut border to Russian tourists from Friday
Finland will close its border to Russian tourists from midnight local time (2100 GMT) on Friday, which is expected to result in a significant drop in cross-border traffic, the Finnish government said.
“The decision in principle aims to completely prevent Russian tourism to Finland and the related transit through Finland,” Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said during a news conference.
Entry for family visits, as well as for work and studies, will still be permitted, Haavisto said.
Other EU member countries bordering Russia (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland) already restricted entry for Russians on September 19, preventing Russian citizens holding Schengen visas from entering for the purposes of tourism, business, or for sporting or cultural events.
European Union officials earlier said the bloc must agree on a common position on entry requests from Russians fleeing their country due to the war in Ukraine.
Swedish coast guard find fourth Nord Stream leak
A fourth leak has been found in the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea, the Swedish Coast Guard said on Thursday.
"There are two leaks on the Swedish side and two leaks on the Danish side," a Swedish Coast Guard official told reporters.
The fourth leak was on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, close by a larger hole found on the neighboring Nord Stream 1, the official said.
The report came after three leaks in the pipelines were found near the Danish island of Bornholm following several explosions that were recorded by seismologists.
European Union authorities suspect the damage was deliberate sabotage amid the tensions caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and the bloc has vowed a "robust" response to any attempt to disrupt its energy infrastructure.
Meanwhile, Russia's Foreign Ministry said leaks from the Nord Stream pipelines have occurred in an economic sea zone of Denmark and Sweden, and those countries are "completely controlled" by US intelligence agencies.
NATO sees 'deliberate' sabotage in Nord Stream leaks
NATO said leaks from the Nord Stream gas pipelines appeared to be sabotage and vowed a "determined response" to any attacks on their critical infrastructure.
"All currently available information indicates that this is the result of deliberate, reckless and irresponsible acts of sabotage," the alliance said in a statement.
"We support the investigations underway to determine the origin of the damage," it said.
NATO also said that any deliberate attack against critical infrastructure of the member states "would be met with a united and determined response."
Russian ex-diplomat says Putin 'put himself in the situation where he has no good exits'
Russia's invasion of Ukraine "was a great miscalculation based on misinformation [Putin] received," and the Russian leader "put himself in the situation where he has no good exits," Russian former diplomat Boris Bondarev told DW.
According to Bondarev, the Russian army has been incompetent when it comes to implementing military operations in Ukraine.
"I don't see how Russia can prevail and can achieve a real victory," Bondarev said.
However, he said he could not rule out that Putin would use nuclear weapons. "Those people who are boasting about nuclear strikes against the West, against the United States, are sure that there will be no retaliation,” the ex-diplomat added.
Bondarev resigned over the war in Ukraine in May 2022. He was the only Russian government official to do so in public.
German intelligence gives Ukraine information about Russian positions — reports
According to the German newspaper Die Zeit and the German public broadcaster ARD, the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) is forwarding classified information about Russian positions and troop movements to Ukraine. These are said to be detailed reconnaissance gained from satellite images, intercepted radio messages and cell phone calls.
However, the data would reportedly be passed on to Ukraine with a delay of up to a few days, making it "not immediately" usable for planning and controlling deadly attacks. In addition, only pictures from Ukraine itself would be shared, not pictures from Russia.
German media also reported that the BND had previously checked the legal admissibility of the transmission of targeted information to Ukraine. In an expert report in May, the security service concluded that the disclosure of the reports was legally covered and that, under international law, did not amount to Germany entering the war.
Baerbock condemns sham votes in occupied Ukrainian territories
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock sharply condemned the so-called referendums in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories.
During these "sham referendums," Baerbock said "people were taken out of their homes or from their jobs" at gunpoint "to cast votes in glass ballot boxes."
"This is the opposite of free and fair elections," she added.
Baerbock accused Russia of wanting to enforce a "dictated peace."
However, as long as Russia's occupation of the regions continues, the citizens there are neither safe nor free, the minister said.
She also justified the delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine. These contribute to "Ukraine being able to protect the lives of its citizens."
On Wednesday, Chancellor Olaf Scholz told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a telephone call that Germany would never recognize the results of the Moscow-organized annexation votes in the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Mario Draghi also said that Italy will not recognise the results of "illegal" annexation referendums. The Italian leader's office said Draghi had spoken to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to assure him of Rome's "continued support" for Kyiv.
Russian partial mobilization likely to cause 'brain drain': UK Ministry of Defence
The number of wealthy and well-educated Russians leaving their country in the wake of the partial mobilization announced by President Vladimir Putin could have a significant impact on the Russian economy, according to an intelligence update by the UK Ministry of Defense.
"When combined with those reservists who are being mobilised, the domestic economic impact of reduced availability of labour and the acceleration of ‘brain drain’ is likely to become increasingly significant," the update said.
It said that the number of those leaving to avoid call-up probably surpasses "the size of the total invasion force Russia fielded in February 2022."
Ukraine's Zelenskyy appeals to Germany again for more weapons
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he called once more for further weapons deliveries from Germany in a phone call with Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Wednesday.
"On the topic of defense, I stressed that we are waiting for an anti-missile defense system from Germany," Zelenskyy said in his daily video address on Wednesday evening, adding that he was "thankful" for Germany's willingness to help with anti-aircraft defense.
Zelenskyy said he had discussed a range of other topics with the German chancellor, including the suspected sabotage on the Nord Stream pipelines. He said he had also insisted that the planned new package of EU sanctions against Russia should be "really powerful, not just symbolic."
The German government said Scholz assured Zelenskyy in the phone call that Berlin would "concretely assist Ukraine politically, financially and with humanitarian aid, and to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity."
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rm, dh, tj/sms (AFP, Reuters, AP)