Recognition…Juan Barreto/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Kyiv, Ukraine — After setbacks on the battlefield, Moscow on Tuesday pushed to consolidate its grip on occupied Ukrainian territory, with Kremlin proxies abruptly calling referendums across eastern and southern Ukraine on formally joining Russia.
One by one, Moscow-based officials in four Ukrainian regions announced plans to hold the polls starting Friday. The plans are sure to deepen international condemnation of the Russian invasion launched by President Vladimir V Putin in February to seize lands he claims are legitimately Russian.
US officials have warned for months that Mr Putin could use mock referendums in occupied territories – from which many residents have fled amid fierce fighting – to try to legitimize the illegal annexation of parts of Ukraine.
On Tuesday, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the referendums would allow the territories to decide their future. “The current situation confirms that they want to be the masters of their future,” Lavrov told Rossiya-1, a state-run TV channel.
The seemingly coordinated vote comes after Ukrainian forces have routed the Russians from the north-east and gone on the offensive in the east and south in recent weeks. Russia has lost tens of thousands of soldiers, is struggling to recruit new soldiers, and is facing mounting backlash, even from some allies, over its protracted and bloody invasion.
Ukraine said the moves signaled Russia’s desperation. Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said talk of annexation was little more than a “sedative” for Russian audiences as Moscow sought to understand its losses on the battlefield.
Any so-called referendum, he added, would not “stop HIMARS and the armed forces from destroying occupiers on our land,” referring to an American-supplied missile system that has helped Ukrainians attack Russian forces.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba dismissed plans for “sham referenda” and said: “Russia has been and remains an aggressor, illegally occupying parts of Ukrainian land. Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will continue to liberate them whatever Russia has to say.”
Russian proxies in four regions — Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, and Kherson and Zaporizhia in the south — announced plans to hold four-day referenda starting Friday. Mr Putin recognized the separatist enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk as independent from Ukraine shortly before the start of his invasion, but Russia does not fully control any of the four regions.
On Tuesday, Russia’s Central Election Commission, the country’s main electoral authority, said it would help separatist entities to conduct the referendums. Nikolai Bulayev, deputy chairman of the commission, told Interfax, a Russian news agency, that the agency will send observers there and open polling stations in Russia – allegedly for residents of occupied territories who have fled across the border.
Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin backed the referendum plans, saying during a session of the lower house of the Russian parliament on Tuesday: “If they said in a direct vote that they want to be part of Russia, we will support them.”
And Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former president and close ally of Mr Putin, said on Tuesday that bringing Ukraine’s eastern regions into the Russian Federation was “essential” and said that “the geopolitical transformation in the world will become irreversible becomes. ”
In the months since the Russian invasion, Kremlin-backed officials in the occupied territories have repeatedly announced plans for referendums, only to see those plans not materialize as they met with little public support and fighting made it impossible to hold a vote . Ukrainian special forces working with local partisans are targeting deputy officials responsible for implementing referendum plans.
For example, on September 8, in the occupied city of Melitopol, Ukrainian resistance fighters blew up the headquarters of the We Are With Russia movement, destroying ballot papers and other materials related to a referendum. The head of the Russian-backed local administration, Vladimir Rogov, spoke of a terrorist attack.
In 2014, Russian forces invaded Crimea and Mr Putin annexed it after newly installed officials hastily organized a secession referendum that reportedly secured 97 percent support of voters and drew international allegations of fraud.
Markus Santora and