Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the final papers on Wednesday to annex four regions of Ukraine while his military struggled to control the new territory that was added in violation of international laws.
Ukrainian law enforcement officials, meanwhile, reported discovering more evidence of torture and killings in areas retaken from Russian forces.
In Lyman, an eastern town liberated after more than four months of Russian occupation, residents emerged from their destroyed homes to receive packages of food and medicine.
In a defiant move, the Kremlin held the door open for further land grabs in Ukraine.
Speaking in a conference call with reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “certain territories will be reclaimed, and we will keep consulting residents who would be eager to embrace Russia”.
Mr Peskov did not specify which additional Ukrainian territories Moscow is eyeing, and he would not say if the Kremlin planned to organize more such “referendums.”
Mr Putin last week signed treaties that purported to absorb Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions into Russia. The annexation followed Kremlin-orchestrated “referendums” in Ukraine that the Ukrainian government and the West have dismissed as illegitimate.
The Russian president defended the validity of the vote, saying it is “more than convincing” and “absolutely transparent and not subject to any doubt”.
“This is objective data on people’s mood,” Mr Putin said on Wednesday at an event dedicated to teachers, adding that he was pleasantly “surprised” by the results.
Mr Putin also signed a decree on Wednesday declaring that Russia was taking over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, the largest in Europe.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry called it a criminal act and said it considered Mr Putin’s decree “null and void”. The state nuclear operator said it would continue to operate the plant, which was occupied by Russian forces early in the war.
On the ground, Russia faced mounting setbacks, with Ukrainian forces retaking more and more land in the eastern and southern regions that Moscow now insists are its own.
The precise borders of the areas Moscow is claiming remain unclear, but Mr Putin has vowed to defend Russia’s territory — including the annexed regions — with any means at his military’s disposal, including nuclear weapons.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky responded to the annexation by announcing Ukraine’s fast-track application to join Nato. In a decree released on Tuesday, he also ruled out negotiations with Russia, declaring that Mr Putin’s actions made talking to the Russian leader impossible.
In the eastern Kharkiv region, more disturbing images emerged from areas recently reclaimed from Russia.
Serhiy Bolvinov, who heads the investigative department of the national police in the region, said authorities are investigating an alleged Russian torture chamber in the village of Pisky-Radkivski.
He posted an image of a box of what appeared to be precious metal teeth and dentures presumably extracted from those held at the site. The authenticity of the photo could not be confirmed.
Ukraine’s prosecutor general also spoke of new evidence of torture and killings found Wednesday in the Kharkiv region.
Andriy Kostin told The Associated Press on the sidelines of a security conference in Warsaw that he had just been notified of four bodies found with signs of possible torture. He said they were believed to be civilians but an investigation was still needed.
During his public speech, Mr Kostin said officials found the bodies of 24 civilians, including 13 children and one pregnant woman, who had been killed in six cars near Kupiansk. It was not clear when the discovery was made.
On the battlefield, Russia and Ukraine gave conflicting assessments of a Ukrainian counter-offensive in the Russian-occupied southern Kherson region. A Moscow-installed regional official insisted that Ukrainian advances had been halted.
“As of this morning … there are no movements” by Kyiv’s forces, Kirill Stremousov said on Wednesday in comments to state-run Russian news agency RIA Novosti. He vowed the Ukrainian fighters would not enter the city of Kherson.
However, the Ukrainian military said the Ukrainian flag had been raised above seven Kherson region villages previously occupied by the Russians. The closest of the liberated villages to the city of Kherson is Davydiv Brid, some 60 miles away.
In the Mykolaiv region, the governor said Russian troops have started to withdraw from Snihurivka, a city of 12,000 that Moscow seized early in the war and annexed along with the Kherson region.
A Russian-installed official in Snihurivka, Yury Barbashov, denied that Russian troops had lost control of the city, a strategic railway hub, but said the Ukrainian forces were advancing.
In the Moscow-annexed eastern Donetsk region, where Ukrainian forces still control some areas, Russian forces shelled eight towns and villages, the Ukrainian presidential office said.
In central Ukraine, multiple explosions rocked Bila Tserkva, a city about 50 miles south of the capital, Kyiv.
Regional leader Oleksiy Kuleba said six Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones struck the city and set off fires at what he described as infrastructure facilities. One person was wounded.