Russian-backed officials ask Putin to annex Ukrainian regions after referendums that were widely dismissed as a sham.
KYIV, Ukraine — Russian proxy officials in occupied areas of Ukraine appealed on Wednesday to President Vladimir V. Putin to join Russia, kicking off what is expected to be several days of pageantry and formalities intended to give Russia’s annexation plans a sheen of legitimacy.
The moves are meant to check boxes under Russian law and the Russian constitution in a process for claiming land in a neighboring country that most of the rest of the world sees as patently illegal.
Staged referendums in occupied areas of Ukraine were hastily set in motion last week after Russia suffered setbacks on the battlefield. After five days of stage-managed voting, in which many residents said they were coerced to cast a ballot by armed soldiers, the Russian proxy officials in occupied areas announced purported results that showed, as expected, overwhelming support for joining Russia.
With the ostensible results in hand, the proxies asked the Russian government to incorporate their territories into Russia in informal appeals issued on Wednesday morning.
The aim is to declare parts of Ukraine as Russian territory and then assert that the Ukrainian army is attacking Russia, not the other way around. Annexation would also provide a pretext for drafting Ukrainian men in occupied areas and forcing them to fight other Ukrainians.
The Russian army controls only portions of the four provinces and has been losing ground. But if Russia follows the template laid down to annex the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin will present local leaders installed by the military as independent actors. In that instance, a carefully choreographed, multi-step process ensued.
Mr. Putin could at any stage pause the process, possibly to open prospects for negotiation with the threat of annexation clearly on the table. If he does not, a next step would be submitting the appeals from the Russian proxy leaders for approval by both chambers of the Russian Parliament. There would be few surprises here: Both houses consist entirely of members loyal to Mr. Putin.
In two of the four provinces that in recent days held shows of voting in referendums to join Russia Donetsk and Luhansk Moscow established client states eight years ago. Setting in motion the process of annexation, the leaders of these entities set out on Wednesday for Moscow, saying they would speak directly with Mr. Putin.
In two others, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, puppet leaders on Wednesday declared independence from Ukraine in what they said was a first step toward being absorbed into Russia, a necessary formality as, under Russia’s 1993 constitution, Moscow cannot annex areas of a neighboring country without the country’s consent.
Denis Pushilin, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said he was leaving for Moscow with a document signed by members of an electoral commission showing results for use in the annexation process, Tass, the Russian news agency, reported. The leader of the Luhansk People’s Republic, Leonid Pasechnik, was also reported to be on his way to Moscow and posted a video online asking Mr. Putin to accept what he called election results.
In the Kherson region in southern Ukraine, the leader set up by the occupying Russian army last spring, Volodymyr Saldo, also publicly appealed to Mr. Putin to consider accepting Kherson as part of Russia.
So far, Mr. Putin has been coy about his plans. His spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said Mr. Putin traveled from the Black Sea resort of Sochi to Moscow on Wednesday but planned no public comment on the referendums.