Putin says Russian-held regions in Ukraine endorse their choice to join Moscow

(Reuters) – Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin said early on Saturday that residents of Moscow-held regions in Ukraine expressed their desire to be part of Russia in recent local elections, reaffirming referendums last year that Western countries denounced as illegal.

In a video address released on the one-year anniversary of Russia’s controversial announcement it was annexing four parts of Ukraine, Putin said the choice to join Russia was reinforced by this month’s local elections that returned officials supporting Russia’s annexation.

“Just as a year ago in the historic referendums, people again expressed and confirmed their will to be with Russia and supported their countrymen who, through their labour and real actions, proved worthy of the people’s trust,” he said in a video of just over four minutes issued at midnight.

Putin reiterated his stance that Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine saved people from nationalist leaders in Kyiv who had unleashed a “full-scale civil war” and “terror against those who think differently”.

On Sept. 30, 2022, parts of four Ukrainian regions — Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — were formally incorporated into Russia after referendums that Moscow said returned overwhelming majorities in favour.

Western countries dismissed the outcomes as meaningless and illegal annexation, underpinned by mass coercion of voters.

Russian forces do not control any of the regions in full.

Ukrainian forces, helped by Western arms, withstood initial Russian attempts to advance on Kyiv and the war shifted to areas held by Russia in the east and south. Ukrainian forces in June launched a counteroffensive to recapture those areas.

(Reporting by Ron Popeski; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)