Four areas of Ukraine under Moscow’s control have announced plans to urgently hold referendums on joining Russia, which would pave the way for annexation by the neighboring country.
Russia’s invasion has stalled in recent months and Ukraine has recaptured swathes of territory in the northeast in recent weeks.
Now, Kremlin-backed officials in the east and south of Ukraine say they want to make starting this week votes to join Russia.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, following a referendum that drew international condemnation.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Tuesday that “‘fake referendums’ will not change anything.”
The international community has never recognized the annexation of crimeabut it has long been clear that Russia intends to use the same avenue to approve its takeover of other occupied regions.
Annexation of more Ukrainian territory would allow the Kremlin to claim that Russia itself is under attack by NATO weapons.
Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
It is speculated that Russia could announce a massive mobilization of troops to reinforce its forces in Ukraine.
The Russian parliament approved tougher penalties for crimes such as desertion, damage to military property and insubordination during mobilization or combat operations.
The deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, former president and former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, said on Tuesday that holding votes in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk – also known as the Donbas – is a matter of “historical justice” and would be irreversible. .
“After amendments to our state constitution, no future leader of Russia, no official, will be able to reverse these decisions“, he claimed.
Shortly after, the two Russian-backed authorities in Donetsk and Lugansk said they would organize votes of the September 23 to 27.
Both were recognized as independent by Russian President Vladimir Putin three days before Russian troops invaded Ukraine from the north, east and south.
Russian-installed officials in the southern Kherson region said they would also hold a vote, and a similar statement came from Russian-occupied areas of Zaporizhia.
Russian state media said people could vote in person or remotely.
For months, the Russian-installed authorities have tried to hold referendums in their own way.
There was never any hope of a free or fair vote, and ongoing warfare has made it impractical to even try to annex areas not fully under its control.
Ukraine’s counteroffensives have made it even more difficult.
While most of Lugansk has been in Russian hands since July, the region’s Ukrainian leader announced on Monday that the army had recaptured the Ukrainian village of Bilohorivka.
Much of Donetsk is under Ukrainian control, although Russia has seized the coastal strip along the Sea of Azov.
Although Russian forces quickly captured Kherson at the start of the war, the Ukrainian military recaptured some of the territory and the Russian-installed authorities have faced repeated attacks from Ukraine. Attempts to hold a vote there were postponed.
Much of Zaporizhia is still under Ukrainian control, including the regional capital of the same name.
Despite the fact that the 2014 vote in Crimea was widely rejected as illegal and boycotted by a large number of residents, the Russian military was in control of the peninsula.
Ukrainian forces are not far from the city of Donetsk and on Monday the Russian-backed mayor accused them of shelling the city, killing at least 13 people.
Any attempt to annex more sovereign territory from Ukraine will infuriate leaders in Kyiv and will destroy any hope of a negotiated solution.
Ukrainian Defense Ministry adviser Oleksiy Kopytko suggested the voting plan was a “sign of hysteria” in Moscow.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Monday that “the occupants are clearly in a panic”.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called the vote a “farce”, while French President Emmanuel Macron condemned the idea as “cynical” and a “parody” that would obviously not be recognized by the international community.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the consultations have no legitimacy and are “a new escalation in Putin’s war.”
Russia specialist Tatiana Stanovaya analyzes the latest move as an “unequivocal ultimatum” from Russia to Ukraine and the West.
According to her, if they do not react properly, Russia will fully mobilize its armed forces for war.
Annexation would give President Putin the right, in his view, to use any weapon on protected territory that Moscow considers to be Russian.
There is support from some sectors in Russia for the total mobilization of the armed forces. Putin still describes the invasion as a “special military operation.”
In a sign that the Kremlin may be preparing to back the referendums, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that from the start of the operation, Russia wanted residents to have a say.
“The entire current situation confirms that they want to be masters of their destiny,” said the Russian foreign minister.
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