In Russia, Friday was a call for celebration. In Ukraine, it was a worrying reminder of the dangers civilians face on the front lines.
It has now been one year since Russia said it would annex the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. The regions together account for 100,000 square kilometers (38,600 square miles) of Ukrainian territory, a fifth of the country’s land mass. It marked the largest forcible annexation of land in Europe since 1945.
The Kremlin’s decision to seize the territories in violation of international law came after referendums widely panned as a sham, as people were voting both figuratively and, in some cases literally, at gunpoint.
That did not stop Russian leader Vladimir Putin from declaring the millions of people living there would be Russian citizens “forever.”
One year later, Putin took to the airwaves to celebrate the move, falsely claiming the vote was conducted in compliance with international law. Hundreds gathered in Moscow’s Red Square for a celebratory concert to mark the occasion.
The anniversary saw the Kremlin take further steps toward achieving that goal as well. A decree that took effect Friday allowed Ukrainians to enter the country without visas, even if their documents have expired, and makes it easier for them and other citizens of former Soviet states to obtain Russian citizenship.
First fighting, now conscription: Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia have been home to some of the war’s fiercest fighting. Donetsk and Luhansk make up the Donbas — a rural part of Ukraine dotted with factories and coal fields where Russian-backed breakaway republics have been fighting Kyiv since 2014 — while Kherson and Zaporizhzhia were occupied by Russian forces at the outset of the invasion.
Ukraine intends to recapture all four regions, with Kyiv’s troops battling since the summer to push Russia’s troops back.
Civilians have been caught in the crossfire, but now those in Russian-controlled territory face a new danger: conscription.
Putin on Friday also approved a decree which will see 130,000 people called up for military service — including, for the first time, people living in the four illegally annexed regions of Ukraine. Conscriptions in Russia happen twice per year.
More sanctions: Western powers responded to Russia’s attempt at annexation last year with sanctions. The United Kingdom announced a new set of punitive measures on Friday to mark the anniversary and punish Russia for a round of regional elections arranged earlier this month. 11 new designations were announced, including measures targeting Russia’s Central Election Commission.
“Russia’s sham elections are a transparent, futile attempt to legitimize its illegal control of sovereign Ukrainian territory. You can’t hold ‘elections’ in someone else’s country,” Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in a statement.