Kremlin-backed separatists in Ukraine plan votes to join Russia

The Kremlin on Tuesday paved the way for what Ukraine calls “sham” referendums in Russian-controlled separatist areas that could lead to the annexation of nearly 15% of Ukraine.

The big picture: The planned votes come after Russia suffered one of its biggest setbacks of the war when Ukrainian forces launched a lightning counter-offensive earlier this month.

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin last week vowed to continue the offensive push in Ukraine, saying: “We are in no hurry.”

Why it matters: The plans could dramatically increase the stakes on future territorial losses and rule out any peace deal that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy may find acceptable, reports Axios’ Dave Lawler.

Driving the news: In what appears to be a coordinated effort, separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics have proposed referenda on joining Russia, with votes potentially taking place as early as this weekend, according to Russian news agency Interfax.

  • Ukraine has said the referendums are illegal and most of the international community is unlikely to recognize the results of the votes.
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What you say: “Sham referendums won’t change anything,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted.

  • “Russia has been and remains an aggressor, illegally occupying parts of Ukrainian land,” he added. “Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will continue to liberate them whatever Russia has to say.”

“Right from the start of the operation…we said that the peoples of the respective areas should decide their fate, and the whole current situation confirms that they want to be masters of their fate,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Reuters.

  • Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012 and current deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, said that “no official will be able to undo the referendums”.
  • “Trespassing on Russian territory is a crime that allows you to use all the forces of self-defense,” Medvedev said.
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The newest: During a White House news briefing on Tuesday, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the US would never recognize any of Russia’s claims to allegedly annexed parts of Ukraine.

  • “These referenda are an affront to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity that underpin the international system and are at the heart of the United Nations Charter,” Sullivan said. “We know that these referendums are rigged. We know that Russia will use these mock referendums as a basis to allegedly annex these territories either now or in the future.”

  • “We will never recognize this territory as anything other than part of Ukraine. We unequivocally reject Russia’s actions and we will continue to work with our allies and partners to impose costs on Russia and provide historic support to Ukraine.”
  • Sullivan also commented on reports that Putin may be preparing to stage mobilization efforts, saying, “Like his sham annexation planning, this reflects Russia’s struggles in Ukraine. … Russia is throwing away mock referendums with 3 days’ notice as it continues to lose ground on the battlefield and as more world leaders distance themselves from Russia on the public stage.”
  • “Russia is looking for personnel to throw into this fight. These are not the actions of a confident country. These are not acts of strength – quite the contrary,” Sullivan said.
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go deeper… Putin’s “annexation playbook” in Ukraine cannot pave the way to peace

This story has been updated with statements from US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

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