The official annexation was expected after the vote, which ended on Tuesday. These votes were widely believed to be fake.

Kyiv, Ukraine — Russia will formally annex occupied parts of Ukraine on Friday, where it held Kremlin-organized “referendums” in which it claimed residents overwhelmingly voted to live under Moscow’s rule. The Ukrainian government and the West condemned the election as illegal, coercive and rigged.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will take part on Friday in the Kremlin in the ceremony of official accession of four regions of Ukraine – Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporozhye – to Russia, press secretary Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Thursday.

Piaskov said that the pro-Moscow administrators of these regions will sign agreements on joining Russia during a ceremony in the St. George’s Hall of the Kremlin. Official annexation was expected by many after the vote, which ended on Tuesday in the areas under Russian occupation of Ukraine.

The Kremlin’s statement was met with swift rejection by European officials.

“This is absolutely unacceptable,” said the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, Jan Lipovsky, whose country currently holds the presidency of the European Union. – We reject such a unilateral annexation based on a completely rigged process without legitimacy.”

Lipovsky described the pro-Russian referendums as “theatrical play” and insisted that the regions remain “the territory of Ukraine.”

Other officials who condemned Russia on Thursday for the “fake” votes included the prime ministers of Italy and Denmark and German Foreign Minister Annalena Berbock.

“Under threats and sometimes even at gunpoint, people are taken out of their homes or workplaces to vote in glass boxes,” she told a conference in Berlin.

“This is the opposite of a free and fair election,” Burbock said. “And this is the opposite of peace. It was dictated by peace. As long as this Russian dictate reigns in the occupied territories of Ukraine, not a single citizen is safe. No citizen is free.”

Armed Russian soldiers went door-to-door with election officials to collect ballots during the five days of voting. The West characterizes the suspiciously high benefits as a land grab by the Russian leadership, which has been increasingly cornered after Russian forces suffered some ignominious military losses in Ukraine.

Moscow-installed administrations in four regions of southern and eastern Ukraine said late Tuesday that 93% of voters in Zaporozhye region supported annexation, as did 87% in Kherson, 98% in Luhansk and 99% in Donetsk.

Ukraine has also rejected the referendums as illegitimate, saying it has every right to reclaim the territories, a position that has won support from Washington.

The Kremlin was not touched by this criticism. Russia said it would call up 300,000 reservists for the fight after Ukraine’s counteroffensive this month inflicted heavy defeats on Moscow’s forces on the battlefield. He also warned that he might resort to nuclear weapons. In response, tens of thousands of Russians tried to leave the country.

Ukrainian authorities said on Thursday that Russian shelling had killed at least eight civilians, including a child, and wounded scores of others. A 12-year-old girl was pulled alive from the rubble after the attack on the Dnipro, officials said.

“Rescuers pulled her out from under the rubble, she was sleeping when a Russian rocket hit,” said local administrator Valyantyn Reznichenko.

A Russian missile attack on Kramatorsk, a city in eastern Donetsk region still controlled by Ukraine, injured 11 people and damaged the city, the city’s mayor, Alexander Honcharenko, said.

Reports of fresh shelling came as Russia appeared to have lost more ground around the key northeastern city of Liman, which comes as the Russian military grapples with a chaotic troop mobilization and attempts to prevent men of military age from leaving the country. Washington think tank and British intelligence reports.

The Institute for the Study of War, citing Russian reports, said Ukrainian forces had captured more villages around Liman, a town 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. The report says that Ukrainian troops may soon completely surround Liman, which will be a serious blow to Moscow’s military efforts.

“Eclipsing the Liman Pocket is likely to have serious consequences for the Russian group in the north of Donetsk and western Luhansk regions and may allow Ukrainian troops to threaten Russian positions along the western Luhansk region,” the institute notes.

British military intelligence has said the number of Russian men of conscription age fleeing the country is likely to exceed the number of forces Moscow used for the initial invasion of Ukraine in February.

“Among those trying to leave Russia, the better-off and well-educated,” the British said. “Combined with those reservists being mobilized, the domestic economic impact of reduced labor availability and accelerated brain drain is likely to become increasingly significant.”

However, the partial mobilization in Russia was very unpopular in some areas, leading to protests and scattered violence. Russians have lined up for miles trying to leave at some borders, and Moscow has also reportedly set up conscription points at its borders to intercept some of those fleeing.

Regarding this week’s sabotage of Russian gas pipelines to Europe, Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said Thursday that the Nord Stream gas pipeline accidents would not have been possible without government involvement.

“It looks like a terrorist attack, probably at the state level,” Piaskov told reporters. “This is a very dangerous situation that needs to be investigated quickly.”

He dismissed media reports of Russian warships sighted in the area as “stupid and biased”, claiming that many more NATO aircraft and ships “have been sighted in the area”.

European officials have noted that Russia will benefit from higher gas prices if supplies to Europe are interrupted.