Four occupied areas of Ukraine under Russia’s control have announced plans for urgent referendums to join Russia, paving the way for Russian annexation.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has stalled in recent months with Ukraine recapturing swathes of territory in the north-eastern part of the country propelled by arms sent from the West.
Now Russian-backed officials of the four regions in Ukraine controlled by Russian forces say they want to organize votes on joining Russia this week.
For months, Russian-installed authorities have tried to hold self-styled referendums which have been made harder by Ukraine’s counter-offensives.
While most of Luhansk has been in Russian hands since July, on Monday the Ukrainian leader in Luhansk announced that the army had recaptured the village of Bilohorivka.
Donetsk and Zaporizhia are still under the control of Russia
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, after a referendum that drew international condemnation and was never accepted by the UN, West or Ukraine.
There is speculation that Russia may announce a mass mobilisation, to beef up its forces in Ukraine. The Russian parliament has approved tougher punishments for crimes such as desertion, damage to military property and insubordination during mobilisation or combat operations.
The deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, said early on Tuesday that holding votes in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk – also known as Donbas – would correct “historical justice” and be irreversible: “After the amendments to the constitution of our state, no future leader of Russia, no official, will be able to reverse these decisions.”
Annexing more Ukrainian territory would enable the Kremlin and Russian president, Vladimir Putin to claim Russia itself was coming under attack from Nato and then use more serious measures such as chemical weapons or even nuclear weapons to defend the ‘Russian territory’
The Ukranian government has reacted to the planned referendum, calling it a sham.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Tuesday that “sham ‘referendums’ will not change anything”.
Ukrainian defence ministry adviser Oleksiy Kopytko suggested the vote plan was a “sign of hysteria” in Moscow. President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Monday night “the occupiers are clearly in a panic”.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the votes were a “sham”, while France’s Emmanuel Macron condemned the idea as “cynical” and a “parody” that would obviously not be recognised by the international community. Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said they had no legitimacy and were “a further escalation in Putin’s war”.
Any attempt to further annex sovereign Ukrainian territory is bound to anger the Ukranian government and destroy any hope of negotiations.