With Ukraine swiftly recapturing territory in its northeast from Russia, the separatist leaders of the Moscow-controlled Luhansk and Donetsk regions said Tuesday they are planning to hold votes starting late this week for the territories to declare themselves as part of Russia.
The announcement of the referendums starting Friday came after Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian leader and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said that annexing Luhansk and Donetsk into Russia itself would make the redrawn Ukraine-Russia boundary “irreversible” and would give Moscow authority to use “any means” to defend it.
Referendum voting in the region, populated by many Russian-speaking people, would most likely go in Moscow’s favor.
But any declaration that the territory is part of Russia would not be recognized by either Ukraine or by the U.S. and its Western allies who have supplied the Kyiv government with billions of dollars in armaments to fend off Moscow’s seven-month invasion.
The White House immediately rejected Russia’s plans for the referendums, saying they may be an effort by Moscow to recruit troops in the region in the wake of its recent defeats on the battlefront.
Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, said the referendums violate the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, since the lands in question are part of Ukraine. He said Biden in a Wednesday speech at the United Nations General Assembly would issue a “firm rebuke” to Russia for its war against Ukraine.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said, “Sham referendums have no legitimacy and do 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.”
If Russia were to claim the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces as its own, it could set the stage for an escalation in the fighting if Ukrainian forces try to take them back.
Denis Pushilin, the head of the Donetsk region, said that the “long-suffering people of the Donbas have earned the right to be part of the great country that they always considered their motherland.”
He said the vote will help “restore historic justice that millions of the Russian people were waiting for.”
Since early September, Kyiv’s forces have swiftly recaptured large swaths of land in the Kharkiv region of northeast Ukraine that Russian troops took over in early weeks of the war. Moscow-backed leaders in the Russian-occupied Kherson region of southern Ukraine and pro-Russia activists in the partly occupied Zaporizhzhia region have also called for referendums on becoming part of Russia.
Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council chaired by Putin, said on his messaging app channel that votes in separatist regions are important to protect their residents and “restore historic justice” and would “completely change” Russia’s future trajectory.
“After they are held and the new territories are taken into Russia’s fold, a geopolitical transformation of the world will become irreversible,” said Medvedev, who also served as Russia’s president from 2008-2012.
“An encroachment on the territory of Russia is a crime that would warrant any means of self-defense,” he said. Medvedev said Russia would enshrine the new territories in its constitution so no future Russian leader could hand them back.
“That is why they fear those referendums so much in Kyiv and in the West,” Medvedev said. “That is why they must be held.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that there are no prospects for a diplomatic settlement of the war.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country is “stabilizing” the situation in its northeastern Kharkiv region after driving out Russian forces in a counteroffensive, and he called on the international community to speed up aid to Ukraine.
Zelenskyy said in his nightly address Monday that at this stage, the pace at which things occur is very important.
“The pace of stabilization in liberated areas, the pace of movement of our troops, the pace of restoration of normal life in the liberated territory, and the pace of partners' support,” he said. “We speak about this honestly - the pace of providing aid to Ukraine should correspond to the pace of our movement.”
British Prime Minister Liz Truss said in a statement Tuesday that next year Britain will match or exceed the $2.6 billion in aid it committed to Ukraine in 2022.
“Ukraine’s victories in recent weeks have been inspirational. Time and time again these brave people have defied the doubters and showed what they can do when given the military, economic and political support they need,” Truss said.
Slovenia is promising to provide 28 more tanks and Germany said it would ship four additional self-propelled howitzers.
Ukrainian forces are also now deploying captured Russian armaments abandoned by Moscow’s troops as they fled the northeastern part of the country. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said Tuesday that abandoned Russian T-72 tanks are now being used by Ukrainian forces to push onward into Luhansk.
With world leaders gathering for the U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York, Truss’s office said she would use her meetings there to solidify Britain’s commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and to “catalyze global efforts to stop Russia from profiting off its energy exports while ending energy dependence on authoritarian regimes.”
Zelenskyy is scheduled to address the U.N. gathering with a pre-recorded message on Wednesday.
Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.