Four Ukrainian regions schedule votes this week to join Russia

Four Ukrainian regions schedule votes this week to join Russia

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian-controlled regions of eastern and southern Ukraine announced plans Tuesday to start voting this week to become integral parts of Russia. The concerted and quickening Kremlin-backed efforts to swallow up four regions could set the stage for Moscow to escalate the war following Ukrainian successes on the battlefield.

The scheduling of referendums starting Friday in the Luhansk, Kherson and partly Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions came after a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin said the votes are needed and as Moscow is losing ground in the invasion it began nearly seven months ago, increasing pressure on the Kremlin for a stiff response.

Former President Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council chaired by Putin, said referendums that fold regions into Russia itself would make redrawn frontiers “irreversible” and enable Moscow to use “any means” to defend them.

The votes, in territory Russia already controls, are all but certain to go Moscow’s way. But they already were being dismissed as illegitimate by Western leaders who are backing Kyiv with military and other support that has helped its forces seize momentum on battlefields in the east and south.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba denounced them as a sham and tweeted that “Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say.”

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan slammed the planned votes.

“We will never recognize this territory as anything other than part of Ukraine,” he said, adding that they reflect Russia’s setbacks on the battlefield.

“These are not the actions of a confident country. These are not acts of strength,” he said.

In New York, where he is attending the U.N. General Assembly, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said: “It is very, very clear that these sham referendums cannot be accepted.”

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French President Emmanuel Macron said referendum plans amounted to “cynicism.”

“Russia declared war … and now it explains that in this same region it is going to organize a referendum. If this were not tragic, it might be funny,” he said, adding that the votes would have “no legal consequences.”

Authorities installed by Russia in occupied areas of four Ukrainian regions had outlined plans to hold referendums on membership to the Russian Federation later this month. They have been condemned by Ukraine

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics called for more sanctions against Russia and more weapons for Ukraine, tweeting: “We must say no to Russian blackmail.”

In Donetsk, part of Ukraine’s wider Donbas region that has been gripped by rebel fighting since 2014 and which Putin has set as a primary objective of the invasion, separatist leader Denis Pushilin said the vote will “restore historic justice” to the territory’s “long-suffering people.”

They “have earned the right to be part of the great country that they always considered their motherland,” he said.

In partly Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia, pro-Russia activist Vladimir Rogov said: “The faster we become part of Russia, the sooner peace will come.”

Pressure inside Russia for votes and from Moscow-backed leaders in Ukrainian regions that Moscow controls increased after a counteroffensive — bolstered by Western-supplied weaponry — recaptured large areas.

Former Kremlin speechwriter and Russian political analyst Abbas Gallyamov said on Facebook that Moscow-backed separatists appeared “scared that the Russians will abandon them” amid the Ukrainian offensive and forged ahead with referendum plans to force the Kremlin’s hand.

In another signal that Russia is digging in for a protracted and possibly ramped-up conflict, the Kremlin-controlled lower of house of parliament voted Tuesday to toughen laws against desertion, surrender and looting by Russian troops. Lawmakers also voted to introduce possible 10-year prison terms for soldiers refusing to fight. If approved, as expected, by the upper house and then signed by Putin, the legislation would strengthen commanders’ hands against failing morale reported among soldiers.

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In an interview in New York with the “PBS News Hour,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that if peace is to prevail in Ukraine, “the returning of the land that was invaded will become really important.”

He also repeated his long-held position that the Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014, should be returned to Ukraine. Turkey has strong ethnic ties to Crimean Tatars. “Since 2014, we have been talking to my dear friend Putin about this, and this is what we have requested from him,” he said.

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