Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – The Kremlin paved the way on Tuesday for the annexation of parts of Ukraine and an escalation of the war by announcing that the vast majority of residents supported joining Russia in organized referenda rejected as illegitimate by the US and its Western allies.

Pro-Moscow officials said three of Ukraine’s four occupied regions voted to join Russia. According to election officials installed in Russia, 93% of the votes cast in the Zaporizhia oblast supported the annexation, as did 87% in the southern Kherson oblast and 98% in the Luhansk oblast.

The results from the Donetsk region were expected later on Tuesday.

In a remark that seemed to rule out negotiations, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told the UN Security Council in a video from Kiev that Russia’s attempts to annex Ukrainian territory would mean “there is nothing to talk about with this Russian president.”

The foregone conclusion paves the way for a dangerous new stage in Russia’s seven-month war, in which the Kremlin threatens to throw more troops into battle and potentially use nuclear weapons.

The referenda in the Luhansk and Kherson oblasts and parts of Donetsk and Zaporizhia began on September 23, often with armed officials going door-to-door collecting votes. In the elections, residents were asked if they wanted these areas to be incorporated into Russia.

Moscow-backed officials in the four occupied regions of southern and eastern Ukraine said the polls closed Tuesday afternoon after five days of voting.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to speak to the Russian parliament on referenda on Friday, and Valentina Matvyenko, who chairs the upper house of the body, said lawmakers may consider introducing a law on annexation on October 4.

Meanwhile, Russia raised warnings that it could deploy nuclear weapons to defend its territory, including newly acquired lands, and continued to mobilize over a quarter of a million troops to deploy on a front line over 1,000 kilometers (more than 620 miles). .

Following the vote, “the situation will radically change from a legal point of view, from the point of view of international law, with all the appropriate consequences for the protection of these areas and their security,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday.

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Many Western leaders called the referendum a fiction, and the UN Security Council was due to meet in New York on Tuesday Tuesday to discuss a resolution that says the vote will never be accepted and that four regions remain part of Ukraine. Russia will certainly veto the resolution.

The vote and calls by Russian reservists that Putin ordered last Wednesday are intended to support Moscow’s exposed military and political position.

The referenda is based on the Kremlin’s familiar handbook on territorial expansion and more aggressive military actions. In 2014, the Russian authorities held a similar referendum on the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula under the watchful eye of Russian troops. Russia annexed Crimea on the basis of a vote. As an excuse to invade Ukraine on February 24, Putin cited the defense of Russians living in the eastern regions of Ukraine, their alleged desires to join Russia, and the existential security threat to Russia.

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Putin has been discussing Moscow’s nuclear option since the Ukrainians launched a counteroffensive that reclaimed territory and increasingly surrounds him. Putin’s top aide turned up nuclear rhetoric on Tuesday.

“Imagine that Russia is forced to use the most powerful weapon against the Ukrainian regime, which committed an act of aggression on a large scale, dangerous to the very existence of our state” – Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of the Russian Security Council, wrote that Putin’s chairs, on his channel of the messaging application . “I believe NATO will avoid any direct interference in the conflict.”

The United States has rejected the Kremlin’s nuclear talks as a scare tactic.

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In referenda, residents were asked if they wanted these areas to be incorporated into Russia, and the Kremlin presented them as free and fair, reflecting the people’s aspirations for self-determination.

Tens of thousands of residents have already fled these regions because of the war, and photos shared by those who remained showed armed Russian troops going door-to-door to force Ukrainians to vote.

British Foreign Minister James Cleverly said the vote was Putin’s “desperate move”. French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said during her visit to Kiev on Tuesday that France was determined to “support Ukraine and its sovereignty and territorial integrity” and described the ballots as “sham referenda”.

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Elsewhere, trouble has arisen for Putin over the massive Russian call for active military service.

The order triggered an exodus of nearly 200,000 men from Russia, fueled anti-war protests, and sparked violence. On Monday, an att*cker opened fire at a recruiting office in a Siberian city and severely injured the local head of military recruiting. Arson cases have already been reported in other recruiting offices.

The war has caused an energy crisis in much of Western Europe, and German officials see the disruptions to Russian supplies as a game of Kremlin forces to put pressure on Europe in its support of Ukraine.

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The threat to energy supplies increased as seismologists said on Tuesday that explosions shook the Baltic Sea before unusual leaks were discovered on two underwater natural gas pipelines running from Russia to Germany. Some European leaders and experts have pointed to possible sabotage during the energy stalemate with Russia caused by the war in Ukraine. Three spills have been reported on the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, which are filled with natural gas but do not deliver fuel to Europe.

The damage means the pipelines are unlikely to be able to transport any gas to Europe this winter, even if there is a political will to bring them online, Eurasia Group analysts say.

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