Russia moves toward annexing Ukraine regions in a major escalation

REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko
Head of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic Denis Pushilin speaks to the media outside the prison, which was damaged by shelling in July in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict, in the settlement of Olenivka in the Donetsk Region, Ukraine August 10, 2022, in this picture taken during a media tour organised by the Russian Defence Ministry.

RIGA, Latvia – Russia pushed ahead Tuesday 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 separatist “republics” 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 by Western officials as a sham and merely a precursor to annexation.

After annexing the territories, Moscow probably would 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.

White House spokesman Jake Sullivan said Tuesday that the United States would never recognize Russian claims to annexed territory, calling the planned referendums a direct violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. “We reject Russia’s actions unequivocally,” he said.

The head of the Russian-appointed occupying administration of Zaporizhzhia region, Yevgeny Balitsky, said a 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 referendum, highlighting the thin veneer of pretense that local officials were in control. Denis Pushilin, the puppet leader in Donetsk, said police and members of his administration’s “electoral commission” would knock on people’s doors and “invite” them to vote.

Russia does not have a firm military 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, just as world leaders gather at the United Nations for the annual General Assembly, would be a remarkably brazen step, even for Putin, who has shown little regard for global public opinion as he launched the largest land war in Europe since World War II.

Russian media signaled that Putin might make an address on national television about Ukraine on Tuesday evening, followed by a speech by the defense minister. However, Putin failed to appear, and Russian journalists reported he would address the nation Wednesday.

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

In recent days, a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Ukraine’s sweeping gains also weakened Russia’s hold on the occupied parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that it devoted months and significant manpower to capturing this summer.

In Ukraine’s southern Kherson region, Kyiv’s forces have made slower-moving but steady progress in a separate counteroffensive.

Strikes on weapons depots, command posts and supply routes using U.S.-provided long-range rocket systems, known as HIMARS launchers, have strained Russian logistics, reducing its ability to strike Ukrainian soldiers across the front line.

In Russia, hard-liners furious at the setbacks on the battlefield have called for a harsh escalation, with some even advocating the use of nuclear weapons to crush Ukrainian resistance.

Such a move would cross a bright red line in international conflict. When President Joe Biden was asked by a reporter this weekend what he would say to Putin if he were contemplating the use of a nuclear weapon, he said, simply: “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. It would change the face of war unlike anything since World War II.”

Prominent Russian propagandist Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of RT, who is among the hawks cheerleading for a tougher approach to Ukraine, hinted Tuesday that the planned referendums were a sign of more dramatic actions to come.

“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 on Twitter. “I can’t see any third option.”

Russian officials and pundits on state television have asserted for months that the war it initiated against Ukraine is actually part of a larger existential fight against NATO.

Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, 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 continues to attack the regions after Russia absorbs 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.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the staged votes would have no legitimacy: “This is a further escalation in Putin’s war. The international community must condemn this blatant violation of international law & step up support for Ukraine,” he said on Twitter.

Analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, of the R.Politik political consultancy, said the move toward immediate “referendums” was a sign that Putin had chosen a dangerous new path.

The sham votes amounted to “an unequivocal ultimatum from Russia to Ukraine and the West: either Ukraine retreats or nuclear war,” Stanovaya said on Telegram.

“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.”

Moscow is facing a serious manpower problem in Ukraine, which 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.

On Tuesday, the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, adopted amendments toughening punishments for soldiers who desert or refuse to fight.

Deserters who are away from their 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.

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

The amendments increased speculation that Putin may opt for a national military mobilization, a move he has so far resisted, knowing it would be deeply unpopular and risk turning the Russian public against the war.

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The Washington Post’s 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.