MOSCOW — The Kremlin says Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to formally annex four territories from Ukraine on Friday — capping a week in which Moscow-backed proxies claimed victory in staged and internationally condemned referendums.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin has summoned Russian lawmakers to the Kremlin's ornate St. George's Hall for a signing ceremony to incorporate the Ukrainian lands Friday 3 p.m. local time.
The Russian leader will also make a lengthy speech, Peskov said.
In a related move, Moscow authorities announced they would limit traffic in the city center on Friday ahead of a mass rally in support of annexation.
Near the Kremlin, workers were putting up stages and billboards in support of the annexation, which say, "Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson — are Russia!"
On state TV channel Russia 24, a countdown clock to the celebration now figures prominently on the screen.
Russian legislators could discuss the incorporation of the regions as soon as Oct. 4, Reuters reported, citing the head of the upper house of parliament.
Russia's proxy authorities in the four Ukrainian regions arrived in Moscow on Wednesday, carrying purported referendum results they claim show an overwhelming majority of residents want to join the Russian Federation.
The process has drawn widespread international condemnation. Ukraine and its Western partners have called the referendums "shams" carried out at gunpoint. The United Nations political affairs chief determined these ballots violated international law and the outcomes cannot be regarded as expressions of popular will.
The Russian government's move toward annexation has unfolded as it works to mobilize hundreds of thousands of additional troops to fight in Ukraine, after a Ukrainian counteroffensive took back territory in the northeast and south this month.
Western officials have pointed to that timing as evidence of Kremlin desperation to solidify Russian gains before they evaporated completely.
Meanwhile, Russian officials have insisted the newly incorporated lands would be entitled to full protections under Russian military doctrine — even threatening use of Russia's nuclear arsenal in an effort to force Kyiv and the West to accept the new boundaries.