KYIV, Ukraine — Russia pounded Ukrainian cities with missiles, rockets and suicide drones, with one strike reported to have killed 25 people, as it moved Friday to fold more seized Ukrainian territory into Russia itself and under the protection of its nuclear umbrella, opening an internationally condemned dangerous new phase of the seven-month war.

But even as it prepared to celebrate the incorporation into Russia of four occupied Ukrainian regions, in defiance of international law and with the prospect of further sanctions, the Kremlin was facing another stinging battlefield loss. Russian and Western analysts reported the imminent Ukrainian encirclement of the city of Lyman, that — if retaken — could open the path for Ukraine to push deep into one of the very regions that Russia is annexing.

Salvos of Russian strikes reported in five Ukrainian cities together amounted to the heaviest barrage that Russia has unleashed for weeks. It follows analysts’ warnings that Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to dip more heavily into his dwindling stocks of precision weapons and step up attacks as part of a strategy to escalate the war to an extent that would shatter Western support for Ukraine.

In the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, anti-aircraft missiles that Russia has repurposed as ground-attack weapons rained down on people who were waiting in cars to cross into Russian-occupied territory in order to bring family members back across the front lines, said the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko.

The general prosecutor’s office said 25 people were killed and 50 wounded. The Zaporizhzhia region’s Ukrainian governor, Oleksandr Starukh, posted images of burned-out vehicles that had been part of the humanitarian convoy, and of bodies lying in the road.

Russian strikes were also reported in the city of Dnipro. The regional governor, Valentyn Reznichenko, said at least one person was killed and five others were wounded by Russian Iskander missiles that slammed into a transportation company, destroying buses, and that also damaged high-rise buildings.

In Mykolaiv, a Russian missile struck a high rise and wounded eight people, said the regional head, Vitaliy Kim.

Around the Black Sea port city of Odesa and the city of Mykolaiv, Russia again launched Iranian-made suicide drones, some of which were shot down by air defenses while others struck targets, the Ukrainian air force’s air defense command said. It said Russia launched the drones from the Black Sea.

Russian-installed officials in Zaporizhzhia accused Ukrainian forces of carrying out the strike there on the humanitarian convoy, but provided no evidence. Russia did not immediately acknowledge the other strikes.

The attacks come as Moscow prepares Friday to annex four occupied regions, likely including territory that it doesn’t actually control. The Kremlin paved the way for the land-grabs with “referendums,” sometimes at gunpoint, that were universally dismissed as rigged shams by Ukraine and its Western backers. Those regions include areas near Zaporizhzhia, but not the city itself, which remains in Ukrainian hands.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday that four regions of Ukraine — Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — would be folded into Russia during a Kremlin ceremony attended by President Vladimir Putin, who is expected to give a major speech. Peskov said the regions’ pro-Moscow administrators would sign treaties to join Russia in the Kremlin’s ornate St. George’s Hall.

In an apparent response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called an emergency meeting Friday of his National Security and Defense Council.

Zelenskyy also sought to capitalize on anti-war sentiment in Russia by issuing a special video directed at Russia’s ethnic minorities, especially those in Dagestan, one of the country’s poorer regions in the North Caucasus.

“You do not have to die in Ukraine,” he said, wearing a black hoodie that read in English “I’m Ukrainian,” and standing in front of a plaque in Kyiv memorializing what he called a Dagestani hero. He called on the ethnic minorities to resist mobilization.

The U.S. and its allies have promised to pile even more sanctions on Russia and to offer billions of dollars in extra support for Ukraine as the Kremlin duplicates the annexation playbook it followed when it incorporated Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Putin early Friday issued decrees recognizing the independence of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, steps he had taken in February regarding Luhansk and Donetsk and earlier for Crimea.

Ukraine has repeated its vows to recapture the four regions, as well as Crimea. For its part, Russia pledges to defend all its territory — including newly annexed regions — by all available means, including nuclear weapons.

The fighting for the city of Lyman underscored the two nations’ collision course.

The city, some 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, has been a key node for Russian military operations in the contested Donbas region. That made it a sought-after prize for a Ukrainian counteroffensive that has had spectacular success since its launch in late August.

The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said the city’s fall to Ukrainian forces “is imminent,” unless Russia can ward off the collapse with speedy reinforcements, which appeared “highly unlikely.”

Retaking Lyman could allow Kyiv to push into deeper into Russian-occupied Luhansk, which would be a stinging blow for Moscow after its stage-managed “referendum” there.

Heightening the tensions are Russia’s partial military mobilization and allegations of sabotage of two Russian pipelines on the Baltic Sea floor that were designed to feed natural gas to Europe.

Ukraine’s Western supporters have described the Kremlin-orchestrated votes on whether to live under Russian rule as bald-faced land grabs based on lies. They say some people were forced to vote at gunpoint, without independent observers on territory from which thousands of residents have fled or been forcibly deported.

In unusually strong language, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters Thursday in New York that Russia’s annexation would violate the U.N. Charter and has “no legal value.” He described the move as “a dangerous escalation” and said it “must not be accepted.”

“Any decision by Russia to go forward will further jeopardize the prospects for peace,” Guterres said.


Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine


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