Occupied Ukrainian regions have planned a ‘vote’ to join Russia

Referendums could pave the way for Russian annexation of the area, allowing Moscow to frame Ukraine’s counteroffensive there as an attack on Russia itself, thereby giving Moscow an excuse to escalate its military response.

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

The four regions that have announced referendum plans make up about 18% of Ukraine’s territory. Russia does not fully control any of the four.

Ukraine has rejected the announcement of referendums in the occupied regions as a “fake” based on “fear of defeat”, while the country’s Western supporters have indicated that they will not change their pro-Ukraine stance.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield condemned the expected referendums in a meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Tuesday, and reiterated that the US will not tolerate any attempt by 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 affect US aid to Ukraine.

waiting for Putin

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

But the ads have received swift support from Russian politicians. Former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has publicly endorsed the referendums in the self-declared republics of Donbas, which he said will be of “great importance” for the “systemic protection” of the residents.

As Medvedev, the deputy chairman of the Russian National Security Council, said on his Telegram channel, once the republics are integrated into the Russian Federation, “no future Russian leader or official will be able to reverse these decisions.”

The referendum announcement also comes amid changes and proposals to change how Russia codes military service.

Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, amended the law on military service on Tuesday, toughening punishment for violations of military service obligations, such as desertion and desertion, according to the state news agency TASS.

Separately, deputies and senators of the State Duma have prepared amendments to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, proposing the introduction of a five-year prison sentence for the destruction or careless damage of weapons and military equipment during wartime, state news agency RIA Novosti reported. notify

Deputies have also introduced the concepts of “mobilisation”, “martial law”, “wartime” and “armed conflict” into the Russian Criminal Code, which will now be considered aggravating factors in criminal penalties.

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