Four Russian-controlled regions in eastern and southern Ukraine announced plans on Tuesday 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 set the stage for Moscow to escalate the 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. .
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.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba denounced them 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.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also denounced the votes.
“We will never recognize them,” he said on Twitter. “This is a blatant violation of international law. It is a further escalation of the war. And it is unacceptable.”
Canada denounces Russia’s planned “referendums” in the occupied territories of Ukraine. We will never recognize them. This is a blatant violation of international law. It is a further escalation of war. And it is unacceptable.
Trudeau is in New York at the United Nations General Assembly, along with other world leaders, some of whom have also been quick to criticize the referendum plans.
“It is very, very clear that these mock referendums cannot be accepted,” said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the votes would have “no legal ramifications”.
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics called for more sanctions against Russia and more weapons for Ukraine, tweeting: “We must say no to Russian blackmail.”
US President Joe Biden has yet to publicly comment on the scheduled votes, but National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the US would “never recognize this area as anything but part of Ukraine,” adding that the votes reflect Russia’s misadventures. reflect the battlefield.
“These are not the actions of a confident country. These are not acts of force.”
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.
More pressure on Russia
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.
In an interview in New York with PBS News HourTurkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that if peace is to prevail in Ukraine, “the return of the invaded country will become really important.”
He also reiterated his long-held position that the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, should be returned to Ukraine. Turkey has strong ethnic ties to the Crimean Tatars.
“We have been talking about this with my dear friend Putin since 2014, and this is what we have asked of him,” he said.
Nuclear power plant damaged
In the Russian-occupied city of Enerhodar on Tuesday, shelling around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant damaged a cooling system, a staff dining hall and an unspecified “special building,” the city government said in a statement. There were no further details about the damage.
The power station, the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, has been a concern for months over fears that shelling could lead to a radiation leak. Russia and Ukraine blame each other for the shelling.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there are no prospects for a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Medvedev, who served as Russia’s president from 2008-2012, said on his messaging app channel that the referendums 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.
“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.”
‘Weakness’, not strength
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 recapture of territory, particularly in the northeastern region of Kharkov, has bolstered Ukraine’s arguments that its forces could deliver even more painful defeats to Russia with additional arms deliveries.
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, 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 pounds ($3. 5 billion Cdn) in military aid 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.”