Russian officials confirmed Tuesday they were planning popular votes to annex separatist-dominated areas of eastern Ukraine‘s Donbas region, even as Ukrainian forces continued to claw back territory held by Russia for most of the nearly seven-month invasion.
Ukrainian and U.S. officials both said the hastily organized votes are a sign of weakness by the Kremlin, meant to distract observers from Moscow’s faltering invasion of its smaller neighbor. Moscow staged a similar referendum following the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, an annexation that only North Korea, Syria and a handful of smaller nations have recognized in the years since.
“The bottom line is that Russia is throwing together sham referendums on three days’ notice as they continue to lose ground on the battlefield and as more world leaders distance themselves on the public stage,” Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security advisor, told reporters Tuesday. “These are not the actions of a confident country. These are not acts of strength, quite the opposite.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, in New York for the ongoing U.N. General Assembly gathering, said the Russian plans sounded like a “parody” of a real policy.
“If the Donbas referendum idea wasn’t so tragic it would be funny,” Mr. Macron told reporters, according to the Reuters news agency.
“ … This is cynicism, and obviously it won’t be recognized by the international community.”
The largely Russian-speaking regions of the Donbas have been effectively under the control of pro-Moscow Ukrainian separatist forces since 2014, waging a bloody but low-intensity war with Kyiv. But pro-Ukrainian sentiment in the region has surged since the Russian invasion, and separatist leaders are anxious to cement ties with Russia before all momentum is lost, analysts said.
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Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a briefing that the hastily organized but tightly choreographed votes are “part of [the Russians’] playbook.”
“First, you’re going to have proxy officials claim that they’re going to conduct a referendum,” he said in a briefing for reporters. “They’ll use that as the basis to try to claim legitimacy in terms of their annexation of sovereign Ukrainian territory.”
The White House warned that Russia may be preparing to use the mock annexation as a pretext to push more troops into the region and enact “mobilization measures” to conscript additional soldiers into the military. President Vladimir Putin has yet to declare full-scale war in Ukraine and has been reluctant to call up more troops for what he refers to as a “special military operation.”
“Russia is scraping for personnel to throw into this fight,” Mr. Sullivan said Tuesday.
The U.S. will not recognize the outcome of any annexation and the plebiscites will not affect plans to provide military support to Kyiv, Gen. Ryder said.
“No one will view such a sham referendum with any credibility,” he said. “We will continue to work with Ukraine and our international partners to provide them with the support they need to defend their territory.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted that “sham referendums have no legitimacy and do not change the nature of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine … The international community must condemn this blatant violation of international law and step up support for Ukraine.”
Complicating Russia‘s plans to absorb the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” is that Russian forces no longer control all of the territories inside Ukraine’s disputed Donbas region in light of recent Ukrainian advances around the city of Kharkiv.
“Partial annexation at the stage would also place the Kremlin in the strange position of demanding that Ukrainian forces [leave] ‘Russian’ territory and the humiliating position of being unable to enforce that demand,” according to analysts at the D.C.-based think tank Institute for the Study of War.
Annexation votes to join Russia also are planned in Kherson and sections of the Zaporizhzhia region in the south. Officials in Moscow say a formal annexation of Ukrainian territory would enable them to state that Russia itself was under attack from weapons provided by NATO members like the United States and respond accordingly.
“After their implementation and the acceptance of new territories into Russia, the geopolitical transformation in the world will become irreversible,” Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia and a close ally of Mr. Putin, said on his Telegram social media account. “Encroachment on the territory of Russia is a crime, the commission of which allows you to use all the forces of self-defense.”
Officials in Kyiv said they are closely monitoring Russian moves in the regions they call “temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine.” The plebiscites will have no legal consequences and won’t change the internationally-recognized borders of the country, according to a statement from Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Despite Russia‘s plans to hold pseudo-referendums on occupied Ukrainian territories on Sept. 23-27, Ukraine will continue its counteroffensive,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter Tuesday. “Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say.”
Government officials said any Ukrainian citizens involved in organizing the “pseudo-referendums” could be subject to criminal proceedings in the future.
Any talk about annexing Ukrainian territory into the Russian Federation was little more than a “sedative” for Kremlin officials trying to make sense of their battlefield losses at the hands of Ukraine, said Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior advisor to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“There is global consensus and international law. It is unambiguous — Donetsk, Luhansk [and] Crimea are Ukraine. Any attempts to repaint flags are a fiction that will not change anything for us nor for our partners,” Mr. Podolyak tweeted. “Meanwhile, the armed forces are calmly and methodically de-occupying territories and eliminating enemies.”
• Staff writer Joseph Clark contributed to this report.