Russia moves towards annexing Ukraine’s Luhansk, Donetsk and Kherson regions

RIGA, Latvia — Russia on Tuesday was pushing ahead with plans to annex occupied regions of Ukraine, as Moscow’s puppet authorities set dates to stage referendums on joining Russia — moves that could dramatically escalate the war.

Officials in the self-declared statelets of Luhansk and Donetsk and in the occupied region of Kherson in southern Ukraine announced “referendums” to be held from Friday to Tuesday. Such votes, which are illegal under Ukrainian and international law, have been widely derided in advance by Western officials as a sham, and merely a precursor to the violation of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty.

After annexing the territories, Moscow would likely declare Ukrainian attacks on those areas to be assaults on Russia itself, analysts warned, a potential trigger for a general military mobilization or a dangerous escalation such as the use of a nuclear weapon against Ukraine.

Russian officials and pundits on state television have asserted for months that Russia, in the war it initiated, is fighting against NATO, not just Ukraine.

The head of the Russian-appointed occupying administration of Zaporizhzhia region, Yevgeny Balitsky, said a staged referendum would be held on the same dates in the parts of that region controlled by Russian forces, which includes Enerhodar, where Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant is located .

Balitsky said there was “no point in postponing the procedure.”

Moscow’s proxy leader in Kherson, Vladimir Saldo, appealed to Russia for help organizing the staged referendum, highlighting the thin veneer of Moscow’s pretense that local officials were in control.

Militarily, Russia does not have a firm grip on any of the regions it could move to annex, and the quick staging of votes suggested Russian President Vladimir Putin now aims to accomplish by political fiat what he failed to achieve on the battlefield.

But seizing Ukrainian sovereign territory in flagrant violation of international law, during the very week when world leaders are gathered at the United Nations for the annual General Assembly meetings would be a remarkably brazen step, even for Putin, who has shown little regard for the global public opinion as he launched the largest land war in Europe since World War II.

The push toward annexation also shows how Putin’s options have been shrinking, following recent military setbacks and rising criticism of the war internationally and at home, including a remarkable public rebuke of Russian President Vladimir Putin by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Uzbekistan last week.

In recent days, a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern region, as Russian troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war without much of a fight, and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Ukraine’s sweeping counteroffensive left Russia weakened on the battlefield, and has left Russia’s hold on the occupied parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions tenuous after Moscow devoted months and significant manpower merely to capture most — but not all — of the Luhansk region this summer.

In Ukraine’s south, Kyiv’s forces have made slower-moving but steady gains in a separate counteroffensive across the Kherson region.

Strikes on weapons depots, command posts and supply routes using the US provided long-range rocket launcher HIMARS have strained Russian logistics, reducing Russia’s ability to bombard Ukrainian soldiers across the front line.

In Russia, pro-war hard-liners, furious at the setbacks on the battlefield as life for most Russians goes on essentially as normal, have called for a harsh escalation, with some even advocating the use of nuclear weapons, to crush Ukrainian resistance.

The use of a nuclear weapon would cross a bright red line. President Biden over the weekend warned Putin not to use an atomic weapon. Asked by a reporter on the CBS news show “60 Minutes” what he would say to Putin if he were contemplating such a move, Biden said: “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. It would change the face of war unlike anything since World War II.”

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Prominent Russian propagandist Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of RT, who is among the hawks cheerleading for a tougher approach to Ukraine, tweeted Tuesday that the moves underway could lead to Russia’s victory or nuclear war, hinting that Russia is about to ramp up its actions .

“Judging by what is happening and what is about to happen, this week marks either the eve of our imminent victory or the eve of nuclear war,” Simonyan wrote. “I can’t see any third option.”

Simonyan, like other pundits and propagandists on state television, has argued for months that Russia is facing an existential fight for survival against NATO.

Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, who is now deputy head of the country’s Security Council, said annexing the regions would change Russia’s development for decades to come and “the geopolitical transformation in the world will become irreversible.”

In a veiled threat of nuclear escalation, he warned of severe consequences if Ukraine continued to attack the regions after Russia absorbed them. “An invasion into Russian territory is a crime, the execution of which will enable our use of all powers of self-defense he said.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, however, said in a tweet that the “sham referendums” would not change anything.

“Russia has been and remains an aggressor illegally occupying parts of Ukrainian land,” Kuleba tweeted. “Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say.”

Western officials have warned Russian President Vladimir Putin against annexing the parts of eastern Ukraine that he controls. The Kremlin’s typical response is that the moves are not imposed from Moscow, and that it is up to the local population to decide. Russia, however, has a history of flawed elections and downright electoral fraud.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said sham referendums would have no legitimacy and would not change the nature of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. “This is a further escalation in Putin’s war. The international community must condemn this blatant violation of international law (and) step up support for Ukraine,” he said on Twitter.

Analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, of R. Politik political consultancy, said the move towards immediate “referendums” was a sign that Putin had changed course dramatically, taking a dangerous new escalatory path.

Posting on Telegram, Stanovaya said that the immediate sham votes amounted to “preparation for full-scale war. This is a serious reversal of Putin’s logic regarding Ukraine.” Previously, Putin’s view seemed to be that it was only a matter of time before Western support for Ukraine folded and Russia could claim victory.

Stanovaya described the move toward annexation as “an unequivocal ultimatum from Russia to Ukraine and the West: either Ukraine retreats or nuclear war.”

“To guarantee ‘victory,’ Putin is ready to hold immediate referendums to gain the right (in his mind) to use nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory,” she wrote, adding: “Putin does not want to win this war on the battlefield. Putin wants to force Kyiv to surrender without a fight.”

If Ukraine refuses to back down, Putin would likely declare a mandatory military mobilization, Stanovaya added. So far, Putin has resisted such a move knowing that a national draft would be deeply unpopular.

With Russia facing a serious manpower problem in its war against Ukraine, the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, adopted amendments Tuesday toughening punishments for soldiers who desert or refuse to fight.

Under the amendments, deserters who are away from the posts for more than a month would face a maximum 10-year sentence, compared with the current maximum five-year term. Soldiers who refused orders to fight or to deploy could be jailed for up to three years. Voluntary surrender could be punished by up to 10 years in prison while looters could be given a penalty of up to 15 years.

The amendments are almost certain to be approved by the Federation Assembly, the upper house, on Wednesday and could be signed by Putin the same day. Pro-war hard-liners have been demanding a tougher approach to the “special military operation” in Ukraine, even as the Kremlin has insisted that everything is going to plan.

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The amendments immediately increased speculation that Putin may opt for a national military mobilization,

Russia’s military staffing problem has been worsened by soldiers repudiating contracts and surrendering or deserting. Even a major recruitment effort, including enlisting prisoners and sending volunteers to the front line with little training, has not helped Russia regain its lost military momentum.

Before launching his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, Putin recognized the two eastern Ukraine Moscow proxy regions of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent.

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Isabelle Khurshudyan in Kyiv, Ukraine, Mary Ilyushina, and Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, and Loveday Morris and Kate Brady in Berlin contributed to this report.

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