Four Ukrainian regions plan votes to join Russia this week

Russian-controlled regions of east and south Ukraine Tuesday announced plans to start voting this week to become an integral part of Russia. The Kremlin’s concerted and accelerated efforts to gobble up four regions could pave the way for Moscow to war after Ukrainian successes on the battlefield.

The planning of referendums starting Friday in the Luhansk, Kherson and partially Russian-controlled regions of Zaporizhzhya and Donetsk came after a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin said the votes are needed and as Moscow loses ground in the invasion that started almost seven months ago. , increasing pressure on the Kremlin for a stern response.

Former President Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of the Russian Security Council chaired by Putin, said referendums that fold regions in Russia itself would make redrawn borders “irreversible” and allow Moscow to use “all means” to defend them. .

Local residents collect wood for heating from a destroyed school where Russian troops were stationed in Izium, Ukraine. (AP)

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba denounced the voices as a sham, tweeting that “Ukraine has every right to liberate its territory and will continue to liberate them no matter what Russia has to say.”

The votes, in the area Russia already controls, will almost certainly go in the direction of Moscow, but are unlikely to be recognized by Western governments that back Ukraine with military and other support that has helped its forces gain momentum on the battlefields in the east and south.

In Donetsk, part of Ukraine’s wider Donbas region that has been gripped by rebel fighting since 2014 and that Putin has set as the main target of the invasion, separatist leader Denis Pushilin said the vote “will restore historic justice” to the ” long-suffering people.”

They “earned the right to be part of the great country they always considered their motherland,” he said.

A view of a ruined bridge over the Siverskiy-Donets River in the recently recaptured area of ​​Izium, Ukraine. (AP)

Ukrainian soldiers hug each other as Russians retreat

In partially Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhya, pro-Russian activist Vladimir Rogov said: “The sooner we become part of Russia, the sooner peace will come.”

Pressure within Russia for votes and from Moscow-backed leaders in Ukrainian regions that Moscow controls increased after a Ukrainian counter-offensive — bolstered by Western-supplied weapons — that has recaptured large areas.

Former Kremlin speechwriter and Russian political analyst Abbas Gallyamov said on Facebook that Moscow-backed separatists “appeared afraid that the Russians will abandon them” amid the Ukrainian offensive and continued with referendum plans to force the Kremlin’s hand.

In another signal that Russia is committed to a prolonged and potentially intensified conflict, the Kremlin-controlled lower house voted on Tuesday to tighten laws against desertion, surrender and looting by Russian troops. Lawmakers also voted to introduce possible 10-year prison terms for soldiers who refuse to fight. If, as expected, the legislation is passed by the upper house and then signed by Putin, the legislation would strengthen commanders’ hands against the failing morale reported among soldiers.

A van marked “Z” is parked in a residential area of ​​the recently recaptured area of ​​Kamyanka, Ukraine. (AP)

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there are no prospects for a diplomatic settlement. Medvedev, who served as Russia’s president from 2008-2012, said on his messaging app channel that voices in the separatist regions are important to protect their citizens and would “completely change” Russia’s future trajectory.

“After they are held and the new territories are included in the bosom of Russia, a geopolitical transformation of the world will become irreversible,” Medvedev said.

“An encroachment on Russia’s territory is a crime that justifies any form of self-defense,” he said, adding that Russia would include the new territories in its constitution so that no future Russian leader could return them.

A view of excavated unidentified graves of civilians and Ukrainian soldiers at a cemetery in the recently recaptured area of ​​Izium. (AP)

“That’s why they are so afraid of those referendums in Kiev and in the West,” Medvedev said. “That’s why they must be held.”

Ukrainian analyst Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the independent think tank Penta Center in Kiev, said the Kremlin hopes the votes and the possibility of military escalation will increase pressure from Western governments on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to begin talks with Moscow. .

The move “reflects the weakness, not the strength, of the Kremlin, which is struggling to find levers to influence the situation that is spiraling out of control,” he said.

The reconquest of territory, particularly in the northeastern region of Kharkov, has bolstered Ukraine’s arguments that its forces could deliver more humble defeats to Russia with additional arms deliveries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his speech as he attends a ceremony to receive credentials from newly appointed foreign ambassadors. (AP)

More heavy weaponry is on the way, with Slovenia promising 28 tanks and Germany promising four additional self-propelled howitzers. More aid is also expected from Britain, which is already one of Ukraine’s largest military donors, after U.S. British Prime Minister Liz Truss is expected to pledge her government’s £2.3 billion ($3.92 billion) by 2023. of military aid will “match or exceed”. given to Ukraine this year.

The speed of the Ukrainian counter-offensive also caused Russian troops to abandon armored vehicles and other weapons as they hastily retreated. Ukrainian troops recycle the captured weapons back into battle. A Washington-based think tank, The Institute for the Study of War, said abandoned Russian T-72 tanks are being used by Ukrainian forces seeking to penetrate Russian-occupied Luhansk.

In the wake of the counter-offensive, Ukrainian officials found hundreds of graves near the once-occupied city of Izium. Yevhenii Yenin, a deputy minister of Ukraine’s interior ministry, told a national broadcast that officials have found many bodies “with signs of violent death.”

“These are broken ribs and broken heads, men with tied hands, broken jaws and severed genitals,” he said.

Liudmila Teresenko, 82, is hauling a cart of wood needed to heat her home, which she took from a destroyed school where Russian troops were stationed, in the recently recaptured area of ​​Izium, Ukraine. (AP)

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s southern military command said its forces sank a Russian ship carrying troops and weapons across the Dnieper River near the Russian-occupied city of Nova Kakhovka. It provided no other details about the attack in the Russian-occupied Kherson region, which was a prime target in the Ukrainian counter-offensive.

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