Russia moves to tighten grip on Ukraine as separatists announce referendums on joining Moscow
All four Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine have announced they will hold a referendum later this week on officially becoming part of Russia — a move seen as a precursor to parts of territory Moscow claims it has invaded.
Russia’s deployment of separatists in Donetsk, Luhansk and parts of occupied Kherson and Zaporozhye in what appeared to be a coordinated political challenge to the West said they would hold a vote to officially leave Ukraine and instead Controlled by Moscow.
But the vote, which came after Russia lost most of the territory it gained at the start of the war, was dismissed as a “scam” by Ukraine and the United States.
“The Russians can do whatever they want. It doesn’t change anything,” said Foreign Minister Dmitro Kuleba.
He added in a tweet: “Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and Ukraine will continue to liberate them no matter what Russia says.”
Vladimir Putin, who was due to address the nation on a televised broadcast Tuesday night, faces pressure to extend the country’s borders further into Ukraine.
The separatist-controlled territories together make up 15 percent of Ukraine’s territory, an area the size of Hungary or Portugal.
US National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan said Washington “unequivocally” rejects any such referendum. French President Emmanuel Macron and Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda both used the word “mock” to describe the planned vote.
In Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, separatists said they would hold a referendum between September 23 and 27 and called on President Vladimir Putin to incorporate his territory into Russia as soon as possible after the vote.
Denis Pushlin, the self-proclaimed leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), wrote to the Russian leader on social media on Tuesday: “If the referendum comes with a positive decision, I will ask you as soon as possible – we have no doubts. —Consider making the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea part of Russia.”
The separatist Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), also in eastern Ukraine, also said Tuesday that it intends to hold a referendum on joining Russia on the same day.
Donetsk and Luhansk together make up most of the Donbas region, which has been in the midst of a separatist struggle since 2014.
In Kherson, in southern Ukraine, the first call for a vote two weeks ago was “suspended” for security reasons.
But in a post on the Telegram messaging app, Russia’s appointed head of Kherson, Vladimir Saldo, said the vote would go ahead and that he wanted the region to become “part of Russia, a fully united state. The main body of Kherson”. The Russian army controls about 95% of Kherson’s territory.
Moscow, which recognized Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states at the start of the February invasion, now says securing their territories is the main purpose of its “special military operation”.
The decision to hold a vote on Tuesday was backed by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a Putin loyalist.
He claimed that any regional vote to join Russia would make their new borders “irreversible” and enable Moscow to use “any means” to defend them.
He added that the vote would “restore justice to history” and would “completely change” Russia’s future trajectory.
“The geopolitical shift in the world will become irreversible after they are occupied and the new territories are incorporated by Russia,” he said.
“Violating Russian territory is a crime and requires any means of self-defense,” he said, adding that Russia would write these new territories into the constitution so future Russian leaders could not hand them back.
Such a vote would almost certainly go the way of Moscow, but would not be recognized by Western governments.
However, the referendum could set the stage for Moscow to escalate the conflict as Ukrainian troops become increasingly successful in retaking territory.
In another sign that Russia is grappling with a protracted and potentially intensifying conflict, the Kremlin-controlled lower house of parliament voted on Tuesday to strengthen laws barring Russian soldiers from deserting, surrendering and looting.
Lawmakers also voted for a possible 10-year prison sentence for soldiers who refuse to fight. If approved by the upper house as expected and then signed by Putin, the bill would strengthen commanders and prevent demoralization of soldiers. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was no prospect of a diplomatic solution.