Occupied Ukrainian regions plan to ‘vote’ on joining Russia, raising threat of military escalation


By Simone McCarthy

Several Kremlin-backed authorities in occupied eastern and southern areas Ukraine announced they would hold referendums on formal membership with Russia this week, in a move that threatens to redefine the parameters of the conflict.

Referendums could pave the way for Russian annexation of the areas, allowing Moscow to frame the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive as an attack on Russia itself, thereby providing Moscow with a pretext to step up its military response.

The latest developments follow a significant shift in Russia’s stance after a sudden and successful Ukrainian offensive through most busy Kharkov this month, which has galvanized Ukraine’s Western backers and led to recriminations in Moscow.

In what appeared to be a coordinated announcement, Russian-appointed leaders in occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions and the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic all said they planned to hold “votes from September 23.

Together, the four regions that have announced their referendum plans represent around 18% of Ukraine’s territory. Russia does not control any of the four in their entirety.

Ukraine has rejected the announcement of the referendums in the occupied regions as a “sham” stemming from “fear of defeat”, while the country’s Western supporters signaled that they would not change their support for Ukraine.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield condemned the expected referendums during a meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Tuesday, and reiterated that the United States would not recognize any attempt to Russia to “claim the annexation of the sovereign territory of Ukraine”.

The Pentagon said on Tuesday that the referendums would have no credibility and would not impact US support for Ukraine.

Waiting for Putin

The potential referendums have not been fully approved by the Kremlin, with Russian President Vladimir Putin yet to comment on the plans. Tuesday, reports released Putin was preparing to address the nation, but the address never materialized, and instead analysts close to the Kremlin suggested it had been postponed until Wednesday morning local time.

But the announcements received quick support from Russian politicians. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has publicly endorsed referendums in the self-declared Donbas republics, saying it would be of “enormous significance” for the “systemic protection” of residents.

Medvedev, who is deputy chairman of Russia’s National Security Council, said on his Telegram channel that once the republics are integrated into the Russian Federation, “not a future leader of Russia, not a single official will be able to return on these decisions.

The referendum announcement also comes amid changes and proposals to change the way Russia codifies military service.

The lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, changed the law on military service on Tuesday, toughening the penalty for violating military service duties — such as desertion and evading service — according to state news agency TASS.

Separately, deputies and senators of the State Duma prepared amendments to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, proposing to introduce liability of up to five years in prison for the destruction or damage by neglect of weapons and military equipment in wartime, state news agency RIA Novosti reported. reported.

The deputies also introduced into the Russian Criminal Code the concepts of “mobilization”, “martial law”, “time of war” and “armed conflict”, which will now be considered as aggravating circumstances in criminal convictions.

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CNN’s Josh Pennington, Uliana Pavlova and Jennifer Hansler, Anna Chernova and Tim Lister contributed to this report.

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