The Kremlin announced Thursday that four regions of Ukraine that were forced into sham elections would be annexed into Russia on Friday.
Russia state media said Putin will make a speech at the Kremlin to mark the staged annexations, which are illegal under international law and call to mind Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014. Preparations were being made Thursday for the ceremony, with Red Square in Moscow being sealed off and a stage being erected.
The U.S. has proposed a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the votes in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, as a fourth leak in a major natural gas pipeline was reported on Thursday, NATO said sabotage is behind the damage, calling it "deliberate, reckless and irresponsible."
"The damage to the Nordstream 1 and Nordstream 2 pipelines in international waters in the Baltic Sea is of deep concern," the alliance said in a statement issued Thursday. It went on to say any deliberate action against "critical infrastructure" would face a response.
The new leak, reported by Swedish coast guards, is off the Nordic country's coasts. All four leaks are in international waters.
►The Finnish government says it will significantly limit passenger traffic on Finland's border with Russia, banning Russian citizens traveling with tourist visas from entering the Nordic country effective Friday.
►The Ukrainian military's general staff said Thursday that of seven Russian tanks sent to Lyman recently, Russian troops crashed two of them on the way there. It also said troops manning the tanks did not undergo training on how to use the vehicle's weapons. The Ukrainian military did not elaborate on how it knew about the tank unit's condition.
Russian foreign minister: Ukraine, US don't 'accept reality' of annexations
The Kremlin's Foreign Ministry said Thursday that Ukraine and its allies aren't accepting "reality" when it comes to referenda held in recent days in four Ukrainian regions and their annexation into Russia.
Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Thursday at a news briefing, according to Russian news organization Tass, that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy "and, of course, most importantly, its American handlers do not want to accept reality, do not want to see this side of international law" in calling the elections in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia a sham.
Zakharova insisted the votes in the regions were legal.
Frustration over sanctions
As Russia moved to invade Ukraine in February, the U.S. imposed crippling sanctions on the Kremlin and individual Russians. Months later, members of Congress are say the sanctions have wounded - but not crippled - the country.
Pressed on that issue at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Wednesday, Biden administration officials urged lawmakers to give the sanctions more time while also promising additional actions are in the works.
Read more here.
- Maureen Groppe
Putin to annex 4 Ukraine regions after staged referenda
Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold a signing ceremony Friday to formally annex four regions in Ukraine after Moscow held what it described as referenda to join Russia, although the votes were condemned as an illegal sham by the West and there were widespread reports of voter coercion.
Russia state media said Putin will deliver a speech to mark the staged annexations, which call to mind Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014. The so-called votes held this week were in Luhansk and Donetsk, in Ukraine's east, and in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, in the south. No credible international monitors observed the votes.
Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported that the signing ceremony will take place at 3 p.m. local time (8 a.m. ET). The international community has never recognized Russia's annexation of Crimea.
The development comes as Russia mobilized more troops to send to fight in Ukraine and as NATO formally blamed leaks on Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea on unknown saboteurs.
"These leaks are causing risks to shipping and substantial environmental damage. We support the investigations underway to determine the origin of the damage," the military alliance said in a statement, vowing a military response to any attack on NATO-country infrastructure.
- Kim Hjelmgaard
NATO responds to pipeline leaks
NATO allies on Thursday responded to the leaks in major natural gas pipelines that supply Europe by laying blame and issuing a warning.
"We, as Allies, have committed to prepare for, deter and defend against the coercive use of energy and other hybrid tactics by state and non-state actors. Any deliberate attack against Allies' critical infrastructure would be met with a united and determined response," it continued.
The three pipeline leaks pumping huge volumes of natural gas into the Baltic Sea could discharge the equivalent of one-third of Denmark's total annual greenhouse gas emissions, a Danish official warned Wednesday. European leaders have said sabotage is suspected to have caused the leaks.
Contributing: Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Russia will annex 4 regions of Ukraine on Friday: live updates