Ukrainian Catholic faithful throughout the area are denouncing Russia’s claims of “annexing” portions of eastern Ukraine, following staged voting events conducted under armed Russian guard.

The Ukrainian Catholic bishops of the U.S., led by Metropolitan Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Archeparchy of Philadelphia, said in a Sept. 30 statement they “wholeheartedly and unconditionally condemn this escalation and codification of brutal Russian aggression,” which came after “after a farcical series of pseudo-referendums” conducted “before the eyes of the world.”

“Putin’s referendum is a sham just like all his treaty agreements,” said Sister of St. Basil the Great Ann Laszok in Jenkintown. “People were forced under gunfire to vote for acceptance. We knew the outcome before the vote.”

Earlier today, Russian president Vladimir Putin held a ceremony in Moscow at which he and Russian-installed proxies signed documents for the seizure of Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.

The areas, each of which are approximately the size of Massachusetts, combine to form “15% of Ukrainian territory that, before 2014, was home to 8.5 million Ukrainians,” noted the U.S. Ukrainian Catholic bishops in their statement.

Russia’s so-called “annexation” of the regions came after several days of sham referendums in those provinces, during which residents were polled door-to-door by Russian supporters accompanied by Russian soldiers. A number of residents reported fearing for their lives if they expressed any intention to oppose the so-called vote.

At present, Russia does not hold full military control of the regions, according to data from on-the-ground observers and analysts such as those at the Institute for the Study of War.

Russia held a similar pseudo-annexation event regarding Ukraine’s Crimea province in 2014, marking the start of a long-running war on Ukraine – declared a genocide by several investigators — that accelerated with the Russian Federation’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 of this year.

Basilian Sister Ann Laszok is seen during an Aug. 24 celebration of Ukraine’s Independence Day, held at Philadelphia’s City Hall. (Gina Christian)

Amid preparations for the Moscow ceremony, Russian forces shelled a civilian convoy in Zaporizhzhia last night, killing at least 25 and injuring dozens who were attempting to rescue relatives and deliver humanitarian aid.

The sham referenda and the annexation attempts – the latter of which directly violate international law as an act of aggression – have evoked severe condemnation from global leaders. Ahead of the Moscow ceremony, President Joe Biden declared on Friday at the U.S. “will never, never, never recognize Russia’s claims on Ukraine sovereign territory.” Numerous other nations, including the United Kingdom, have issued similar statements.

Ukraine itself has responded to the move by signing an application for accelerated accession to NATO Sept. 30, with President Volodymyr Zelensky vowing his nation “will not allow” Russia to “steal something that does not belong to it … rewrite history and redraw borders with murders, torture, blackmail and lies.”

International reaction underscores that “Putin’s bogus referendum is primarily designed to feed disinformation and lies to the Russian people,” said Eugene Luciw, president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America’s Philadelphia chapter and a member of Presentation of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church in Lansdale.

Eugene Luciw is seen at an Aug. 28 Ukrainian festival and fundraiser in suburban Philadelphia, at which he said Ukraine is “fighting for Western civilization.” (Gina Christian)

Luciw said Putin is seeking “to convince (Russians) and perhaps the now extremely rare Russian sympathizers in the world that his brutal, unlawful, genocidal attack of Ukraine and her civilian population is righteous and justified.”

In fact, said Luciw, today’s ceremony “is nothing short of an act of terrorism packaged inside of an obvious sham. The entire civilized world knows this and has condemned Russia’s criminal action.”

“There are no secrets anymore,” said Dr. Jonathan Peri, president of Jenkintown-based Manor College, which has deep roots in the area’s Ukrainian American community. “Even with all that dictators can do to hide the truth with their government-controlled media outlets, the people know what’s going on. Putin’s open and obvious illegitimacy undermines all attempts at credibility.”

The implications of Russia’s latest aggression are “quite troublesome,” said Nicholas Rudnytzky, professor of history and dean of academic services at Manor College.

Dr. Jonathan Peri, president of Manor College, said Russian president Vladimir Putin’s “open and obvious illegitimacy” amid attempts to annex Ukrainian regions “undermines all attempts at credibility.” (Gina Christian)

A number of analysts have speculated that Putin might use the declarations of “annexation” to escalate the war, possibly using nuclear weapons to reinforce his illicit claims on the Ukrainian regions.

The U.S. Ukrainian Catholic bishops warned that Ukrainians of various faith communities were at imminent risk.

“Russian imperialistic colonialism, accompanied by gruesome war crimes, the killing of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, and the massive destruction of villages, towns, and cities, enslaves not only the general population but also its churches and religious communities,” they said. “The future of the Ukrainian Orthodox parishes, Eastern and Roman Catholic Churches, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim, and other communities of faith that stand up, as they have in unison, for truth and justice will be under a death sentence if these occupied territories of the Ukrainian state are not liberated.”

At the same time, said Rudnytzky, “Russian society is finally manifesting reactions to the war in Ukraine, but not in the way that most people would have expected.”

While Russian authorities have brutally cracked down on domestic protests to the war – detaining over 2,400 individuals so far – there has been a “mass exodus of Russian society due to the recent pronouncement of the ‘partial mobilization’ of its members” for military service, said Rudnytzky. “(They are) fleeing and abandoning their homeland to the vicissitudes of a lunatic dictator that they have enabled for the past two decades.”

Adjacent nations, such as Finland, Kazakhstan and Georgia, “need to be wary,” since Moscow has historically justified its invasions as “(defending) the ‘Russian speakers’ of that neighbor’s population,” as is the case with Ukraine, he said.

Nicholas Rudnytzky, dean of academic services at Manor College, said nations neighboring Russia “need to be wary” after that nation’s so-called “annexation” of four Ukrainian regions (Manor College)

At home, Putin is facing “criticism and objection” from “elite segments” not for waging what he has called a “special military operation, but rather for losing it,” Rudnytzky said.

“He is being questioned for the first time in the most conservative quarters of his realm, hereto his biggest supporters, because Russian forces are being humiliated by Ukraine’s refusal to become a subjugated nation once again,” said Rudnytzky.

Peri said amid the latest developments in the war, faith remains essential.

“The Lord will make the crooked ways straight, and we should help the Lord to make that happen,” he said. “Doing good is what brings the kingdom of Heaven’s presence on earth. Peace happens when we are its champions through deterrence and resistance to evil. The West must respond in ways that bring peace and that do not allow bad actors to get away with bad deeds.”

The U.S. Ukrainian Catholic bishops also called for prayer, as well as “advocacy and aid in supporting the defense of democracy and Biblical truth in Ukraine and the world.

“We stand with David against the pretensions of Goliath. We stand with Christ the Crucified who always was close to the poor and marginalized. Who became a victim to save the victims of sin,” they wrote. “We trust that the victims will not be abandoned by the powerful of the world and that God’s truth will prevail.”