Four Ukrainian regions controlled by Russian-backed separatists call for referendum to join Russia

Russia has backed plans by separatists it backs in Ukraine to hold referendums, paving the way for the annexation of parts of additional territory in a direct challenge to the West that could greatly escalate the conflict.

After nearly seven months of war, including a critical defeat on the battlefield in northeastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is pondering his next steps.

Russian officials portrayed the move as one that would give Moscow a claim to territory it could defend by any means necessary, 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,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted.

“Russia is and remains an aggressor that illegally occupies parts of Ukrainian land.

“Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will continue to liberate them no matter what Russia has to say.”

“The occupiers are clearly in a panic,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a televised overnight address.

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