Russias parliament begins process to approve annexations as Moscow struggles

Russia’s parliament begins process to approve annexations as Moscow struggles to define borders

Kyiv, Ukraine CNN —

Russia’s legislature on Monday began approving President Vladimir Putin’s decision to annex four parts of Ukraine, though the Kremlin doesn’t fully control those regions and hasn’t committed to the exact boundaries of the areas it’s trying to take over .

Legal approval of the illegal annexation is expected to be a formality, although it will take a few days. Putin and his allies effectively control both branches of Russia’s legislature, and the space for political dissent in Russia has shrunk in recent years.

But the maneuvers in the ornate halls of the Kremlin stand in stark contrast to the facts on the battlefields of eastern Ukraine.

Russian forces have suffered a series of surprise defeats in eastern Ukraine, forcing them to retreat and abandon several positions in areas the Kremlin declares for its annexation. Much of the territory Moscow claims in the Donetsk region is under the control of Ukrainian forces, and the Kremlin seems unsure of the exact borders of the regions it intends to annex. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow must “continue to consult with local people” before setting its borders.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Sunday that the country had retaken Lyman, while Ukraine’s military said it had retaken the nearby villages of Drobysheve and Torske, putting Kyiv in a better position as it seeks to retake the Luhansk region.

Pro-Russian officials said Monday Ukrainian forces had advanced into the Lugansk region, which is almost entirely under the control of Russia or Russian-allied forces. Ukrainian troops liberated the village of Bilohorivka in Luhansk at the end of September and have now gained a foothold in the direction of Lysychansk. Lysychansk was the last Ukrainian base in Luhansk before Kyiv withdrew its troops in July.

In a third region, Kherson, Ukrainian forces are advancing and have captured several villages and settlements, including Zolota Balka on the west bank of the Dnipro River, according to a Ukrainian regional official and a pro-Russian military blog. Zelenskyi said on Sunday that the Ukrainian military had captured Archanhelske and Myroliubivka.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in an interview with CNN on Sunday that he believes Ukraine is making “progress” in Kherson, thanks in part to weapons supplied by Washington.

“What we’re seeing now is sort of a shift in battlefield dynamics,” Austin said. “They did very, very well in the Kharkiv area and moved to take chances. The fight in the Kherson region is slowing down a bit, but they are making progress.”

The losses have sparked an unusual amount of criticism from pro-Russian propagandists in recent days. A prominent Russian pro-government tabloid, Komsomolskaya Pravda, said Russian forces were having to retreat to the strategically important city of Lyman because of a manpower shortage and poor communication and because the commanding officers there were making “mistakes”.

Donetsk and Luhansk are two of the four regions that Russia wants to annex. Both are home to Russian-backed breakaway republics, and fighting has been raging in both since 2014.

The other areas, Kherson and Zaporizhia, are both in southern Ukraine and have been occupied by Russian forces since shortly after the invasion began in late February.

In a formal speech in the Kremlin’s opulent St. George’s Hall on Friday, Putin announced that Russia would press ahead with the annexation of these four regions after so-called referendums in those areas yielded results allegedly showing that the majority of the people living there had voted for accession to Russian sovereignty.

The contests were widely portrayed as a farce that failed to meet internationally accepted standards of free and fair elections. Reports on the ground indicated that the vote was both essentially and literally held at gunpoint.

Countries around the world were quick to condemn Putin’s announcement that he would annex the regions. Members of the G7 – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States – and the European Union said they would never recognize the Kremlin’s sovereignty over the regions and vowed to “impose further economic costs on Russia”.

EU member states on Friday began summoning Russian ambassadors in a coordinated manner to “strongly condemn these actions” and to demand the “immediate cessation of steps that undermine Ukraine’s territorial integrity and violate the UN Charter and the violate international law,” said a spokesman for the bloc.