LONDON (Reuters) - Russia will on Friday begin its plan to annex around 15% of Ukrainian territory via referendums in four regions controlled by Russian forces, a move the West says is a gross violation of international law that significantly escalates the war.
After nearly seven months of war, and a critical battlefield defeat in northeastern Ukraine earlier this month, President Vladimir Putin explicitly backed the referendums after the Russian-controlled regions lined up to ask for swift votes to join Russia.
The self-styled Donetsk (DPR) and the Luhansk People's Republics (LPR), which Putin recognised as independent just before the invasion, and Russian-installed administrations in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions will hold votes.
The voting, which the West and Ukraine says is a sham, is due to begin on Friday and will end on Tuesday, with results expected soon afterwards.
Russia will formally annex the areas after the results.
"The Kremlin is organizing a sham referenda to try to annex parts of Ukraine," U.S. President Joe Biden told the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly.
"Ukraine has the same rights that belong to every sovereign nation. We will stand in solidarity with Ukraine," said Biden, who cast the war as part of a global contest between democracy and autocracy.
Ukraine, whose post-Soviet borders Russia recognised under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, says it will never accept Russian control of any of its territory and will fight until the last Russian soldier is ejected.
Putin, Russia's paramount leader since 1999, said Russia would never abandon those in the regions it controls and whom he said wanted to secede from Kyiv.
He casts the war as both a battle to save Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine from persecution and as a way to foil what he says is a Western plot to destroy Russia. Ukraine denies Russian speakers have been persecuted.
In a direct nuclear warning to the West, Putin said he would defend Russian territory - and these regions of Ukraine will be considered Russian territory by Moscow shortly - with all means at his disposal.
It is unclear exactly how the votes will work in a war zone when so many people have been displaced. Russia controls most of Luhansk and Kherson, around 80% of Zaporizhzhia and just 60% of Donetsk. Fighting continues in all four regions.
The results are not in doubt.
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said Russian-installed officials in the regions were setting targets for invented voter turnouts and approval rates, with some turnout figures already agreed.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine began in 2014 after a pro-Russian president was toppled in Ukraine's Maidan Revolution and Russia annexed Crimea, while Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas - which is comprised of Donetsk and Luhansk - sought to break away from Kyiv's control.
After Russian forces took control of Crimea, which has an ethnic Russian majority and was transferred to Ukraine in Soviet times, on Feb. 27, 2014, a referendum on joining Russia was held on March 16.
Crimea's leaders declared a 97% vote to secede from Ukraine. Russia formally added Crimea on March 21. Kyiv and the West said the referendum violated Ukraine's constitution and international law.
"As of next week, Russia will consider these Ukrainian territories as being part of Russia, and they will claim any Ukrainian attempts to retake their own sovereign territory as an 'invasion of Russia'," Britain's Cleverly said.
(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Felix Light; Editing by Daniel Wallis)