Russia has given support to plans by separatists which it backs in Ukraine to hold referendums, paving the way for the annexation of swathes of additional territory in a direct challenge to the West that could sharply escalate the conflict.
- Four separatist-held Ukrainian regions have requested referendums to join Russia
- The votes could allow Moscow to annex 15 per cent of Ukraine but may escalate military tensions with the West
- Ukraine says it will continue fighting to liberate its territories from Russian occupation
After nearly seven months of war, including a critical battlefield defeat in north-eastern Ukraine, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is pondering his next steps.
Russian officials portrayed the move as one that would give Moscow a claim to territory that it could defend with any means possible, but Ukraine has dismissed it as a stunt by Russia to try to reclaim the initiative after crushing losses on the battlefield.
“Sham ‘referendums’ will not change anything,” tweeted Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
“Russia has been and remains an aggressor illegally occupying parts of Ukrainian land.
“Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say.”
“The occupiers are clearly in a panic,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an overnight televised address.
In what appeared to be choreographed requests, Russian-backed officials across 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory — an area about the size of Hungary or Portugal — lined up to request referendums on joining Russia.
The self-styled Donetsk (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republics (LPR) in Ukraine’s east, which Mr Putin recognised as independent territories days before the invasion, and the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions have all asked for separate votes in less than 24 hours.
Luhansk, Donetsk and Kherson officials said the referendums would take place in just days — on Friday September 23 through to Monday September 27.
Russia does not fully control any of the four regions, with only around 60 per cent of the Donetsk region in Russian hands.
Asked about the referendums, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “From the very start of the operation … we said that the peoples of the respective territories should decide their fate, and the whole current situation confirms that they want to be masters of their fate.”
If Moscow formally annexed a vast additional chunk of Ukraine, Mr Putin would essentially be daring the United States and its European allies to risk a direct military confrontation with Russia, the world’s biggest nuclear power.
“All this talk about immediate referendums is an absolutely unequivocal ultimatum from Russia to Ukraine and the West,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the political analysis firm R Politik.
Russian officials back referendum
Dmitry Medvedev, who served as Russian president from 2008 to 2012 and is now deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, backed the referendums, which he said would change the path of Russian history and allow the Kremlin more options for defence of what he said would become Russian territory.
“Encroachment onto Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self-defence,” Mr Medvedev said in a post on Telegram.
“This is why these referendums are so feared in Kyiv and the West.
“It is equally important that after the amendments to the constitution of our state, no future leader of Russia, no official will be able to reverse these decisions.”
Russia’s nuclear doctrine allows the use of such weapons if weapons of mass destruction are used against it, or if the Russian state faces an existential threat from conventional weapons.
Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the Duma, said he would support the folding in of parts of Ukraine that voted to join Russia.
Ukraine said the threat of referendums was “naive blackmail” and a sign Russia was running scared.
“This is what the fear of defeat looks like,” said Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“The enemy is afraid, and obfuscates primitively.”
“Ukraine will solve the Russian issue. The threat can only be eliminated by force.”
Ukraine says it will not rest until every Russian soldier is ejected from its territory.
Kyiv says it will never accept Russian control over its territory and has called on the West to supply more weaponry for its fight against Russian forces.
‘We reject Russia’s actions unequivocally’
The United States rejected Russia’s plans to hold referendums in Ukraine and would never recognise its claims to annex parts of Ukraine, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said.
Mr Sullivan said Moscow may be making the move to recruit troops in those areas after suffering extensive losses on the battlefield, and called the referendums an affront to principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.
He said President Joe Biden, at his speech on Wednesday at the United Nations General Assembly, will issue a “firm rebuke” to Russia for its war against Ukraine.
“If this does transpire, the United States will never recognise Russia’s claims to any purportedly annexed parts of Ukraine,” Mr Sullivan said.
“We will never recognise this territory as anything other than a part of Ukraine. We reject Russia’s actions unequivocally.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said the proposed referendums would not be recognised by the international community.
Speaking in New York, he said the referendum proposals for eastern Ukraine were an additional provocation following Russia’s invasion of its neighbour.
“If the Donbas referendum idea wasn’t so tragic it would be funny,” he said.
Polish President Andrzej Duda said his country would join the US and France in not recognising the results of the referendums.
“[The referendums] are worth nothing — the truth is that the result is decided in the Kremlin and not by voting,” Mr Duda said.
Russia and the West
US President Joe Biden warned in March that a direct confrontation between the NATO military alliance and Russia would mean World War III.
Mr Biden and NATO leaders have been careful to say that they do not want NATO troops in direct conflict with Russian troops.
Mr Putin and senior Russian generals and officials, though, already cast the conflict as a broader contest with the West, which they say has sent Ukraine advanced weaponry and helps guide Ukrainian forces with intelligence and training that ultimately kills Russian troops.
On Friday, Mr Putin brushed off the lightning Ukrainian counter-offensive in recent weeks, and cast the conflict as an attempt to prevent what he said was a Western plot to carve up and destroy Russia.
Russia’s parliament on Tuesday approved a bill to toughen punishments for a host of crimes, including desertion, damage to military property, and insubordination if they were committed during military mobilisation or combat situations.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine began in 2014 after a pro-Russian president was toppled in Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and Russia annexed Crimea, while Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas — which is comprised of Donetsk and Luhansk — sought to break away from Kyiv’s control.
Russian forces took control of Crimea, which has an ethic Russian majority and was transferred to Ukraine in Soviet times, on February 27, 2014 and held a referendum to join Russia 17 days later.
Crimea’s leaders declared a 97 per cent vote to secede from Ukraine, and Russia formally added Crimea on March 21.
Kyiv and the West said the referendum violated Ukraine’s constitution and international law.
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