The self-styled Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics and the Kherson and Zaporiyia regions announced the urgent holding of referendums on annexation to Russia.
Russia on Tuesday backed plans by separatists it supports in Ukraine to hold referendums to pave the way for the annexation of additional swathes of territory, a direct challenge to the West that could escalate the conflict.
After nearly seven months of the war, including a battlefield defeat in northeastern Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin is mulling his next steps.
In what appeared to be choreographed requests, Moscow-backed officials in 15% of Ukrainian territory – an area the size of Hungary or Portugal – lined up to call for referendums on joining Russia.
The self-styled Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, recognized by Putin as independent just before the invasion, and the Kherson and Zaporiyia regions have called for the vote in less than 24 hours.
Officials in Lugansk and Donetsk said the referendums would be held in just a few days, from September 23 to 27. Asked about the referendums, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, “From the very beginning of the operation (…) we said that the peoples of the respective territories should decide their destiny and the whole situation today confirms that they want to be masters of their destiny.”
If Moscow were to formally annex a vast additional portion of Ukraine, Putin would be challenging the United States and its European allies to risk a direct military confrontation with Russia, the world’s largest nuclear power.
All this talk of immediate referendums is an unequivocal request from Russia to Ukraine and the West,” reckoned Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the political analysis firm R.Politik.
“Fear of referendums.”
Dmitry Medvedev, who was Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012 and is now deputy chairman of the Security Council, said such referendums would change the course of Russian history and allow the Kremlin more options to defend what he said would become Russian territory.
“The invasion of Russian territory is a crime that allows the use of all self-defense forces,” Medvedev said in a post on Telegram. That is why these referendums are so feared in Kyiv and the West,” he assured.
It is equally important that after the amendments to the Constitution of our state, no future leader of Russia, no responsible person, will be able to reverse these decisions, Medvedev added.
Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, said he would support the withdrawal of the parts of Ukraine that voted to join Russia.
Ukraine said the referendum threat was “naive blackmail” and a sign that Russia was afraid. “This is what fear of defeat looks like. The enemy is afraid and obfuscates primitively,” commented Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky. Ukraine will resolve the Russian issue; force can only eliminate the threat.” He said.
Ukraine says it will not rest until all Russian soldiers are expelled from its territory.
Kyiv says it will never accept Russian control over its territory and has called on the West to supply more and better weapons to fight Russian soldiers.
U.S. President Joe Biden warned in March that a confrontation between the NATO military alliance and Russia would mean World War III.
Biden and NATO leaders have been careful to say that they do not want NATO soldiers to come into direct conflict with Russian troops.
However, Putin and senior Russian generals and officials have already portrayed the conflict as a broader contest with the West, which, they say, has sent Ukraine advanced weaponry and aided its forces with intelligence and training that ultimately serves to kill Russian soldiers.
On Friday, Putin shrugged off the lightning Ukrainian counteroffensive and portrayed the conflict as an attempt to head off what he says is a plot by the West to carve up and destroy Russia.
The Russian parliament on Tuesday passed a bill to toughen punishments for a range of crimes, including desertion, damage to military property, and insubordination if committed during military mobilization or in combat situations.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine began in 2014 after a pro-Russian president was overthrown in Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and Russia annexed Crimea, while Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas – comprising Donetsk and Lugansk – tried to break out of Kyiv’s control.
Russia sent troops into Ukraine on February 24, the largest land invasion in Europe since World War II. Since the invasion, tens of thousands of people have been killed.