Four Moscow-controlled regions of Ukraine have announced plans to hold a so-called emergency referendum on whether to join Russia, which would pave the way for Russia to annex them.
Russia’s incursion has stalled in recent months, while Ukraine has retaken territory in the northeast.
Now, some Russian-backed officials in the southeast say they want to start a referendum this week on whether to join Russia.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 following a referendum that drew international condemnation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was expected to address the nation on Tuesday evening local time, but it was later delayed.
On Wednesday morning local time, Putin delivered a national speech on TV, saying that Russia began to enter a state of partial mobilization today. The Russian Defense Minister then announced the call for 300,000 reserve troops.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Tuesday that “a fake ‘referendum’ will not change anything.”
The international community has never recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but it has long been clear that Russia has always intended to rubber stamp occupied territories in the same way, i.e. local governments without real power.
The annexation of more territory in Ukraine would allow the Kremlin to claim that Russian territory is threatened by NATO force. Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24 this year.
There has been speculation that Russia may announce a general mobilization to strengthen its military in Ukraine after Russia’s parliament has passed harsher sentences for crimes such as evading military service, destroying military property and disobeying orders during mobilization or combat operations.
Wednesday’s speech means that speculation has become reality.
Putin said Russia’s actions were not bluff.
“The territorial integrity, independence and freedom of our homeland will be protected, and I repeat, we will use all means.”
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Federation’s Security Council, said earlier on Tuesday that voting in the eastern region of Donetsk and Luhansk — also known as the Donbass — would “amend it”. Historical justice” and irreversible: “After the revision of our country’s constitution, no future Russian leader, no official will be able to overturn these decisions.”
Soon after, the Russian-backed local authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk said they would hold referendums on September 23-27. Both were granted independence by Putin three days before Russian forces invaded Ukraine from east, south and north.
Russian officials in the southern region of Kherson said they would also hold a vote, and the Russian-occupied part of Zaporozhye issued a similar declaration. Russian state media said people would be able to vote in person or remotely.
For months, Russian-installed officials have been trying to hold a referendum on autonomy. There is no hope of free and fair voting, and the ongoing fighting makes it impractical to annex areas not fully under their control. The Ukrainian counteroffensive also made things more difficult.
While much of Luhansk has been under Russian control since July, on Monday Ukrainian leaders in Luhansk announced that Ukrainian forces had recaptured the village of Bilogivka.
Much of Donetsk remains under Ukrainian control, although Russia has seized a narrow strip of land along the Sea of Azov.
While Russian forces quickly captured Kherson at the start of the war, Ukrainian forces have recaptured parts of the territory and Russian-backed officials have faced continued attacks. An earlier local attempt to vote was delayed.
Much of Zaporozhye Oblast is still under Ukrainian control, including the regional capital of the same name. Although the 2014 referendum in Crimea was widely considered illegal and unrecognized, and was boycotted by a large number of local residents, the Russian military still controls the peninsula.
The Ukrainian army is not far from the city of Donetsk. On Monday, the Russian-backed mayor accused Ukrainian forces of bombing the city, killing at least 13 people.
Any further attempt to annex Ukraine’s sovereign territory is sure to anger the leadership in Kyiv and dash any hopes of a negotiated settlement of the dispute.
Oleksiy Kopytko, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister, said the vote’s plans were a “sign of hysteria” in Moscow. “The occupiers are clearly in a panic,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Monday night.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the vote was a “scam”, while French President Emmanuel Macron dismissed the plan as “extreme” and “ridiculous” and clearly would not receive international commitment. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the referendums had no legitimacy and were “a further escalation of Putin’s war”.
Respected Russian analyst Tatiana Stanovaya sees the latest operation as Russia’s “unequivocal ultimatum” for Ukraine and the West. If they don’t respond appropriately, Russia will fully mobilize its armed forces to go to war, she said. In Putin’s view, annexation would give him the power to use any weapon in protected areas that Moscow considers Russian territory.
In some parts of Russia, there have been growing voices calling for a full mobilization of the armed forces. President Vladimir Putin still described the invasion as a “special military operation”.
In a sign that the Kremlin is gearing up to support the referendum, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that from the start of the operation, Russia wanted residents to decide: “The whole situation now clearly shows that they want to make their own destiny. the master.”