Multiple Kremlin-backed authorities in occupied areas of eastern and southern Ukraine have announced they will hold referendums on formally joining Russia this week, in a move that threatens to redefine the parameters of the conflict.
The referendums could pave the way for Russian annexation of the areas, allowing Moscow to frame the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive there as an attack on Russia itself, thereby providing Moscow with a pretext to escalate its military response.
The latest developments follow a significant shift in Russia’s position after a sudden and successful Ukrainian offensive through most of occupied Kharkiv this month, which has galvanized Ukraine’s Western backers and led to recriminations in Moscow.
In what appeared to be a coordinated announcement, Russian-appointed leaders in the occupied regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia and the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic all said they planned to hold “votes” beginning on September 23.
Together the four regions that have announced their referendum plans make up around 18% of Ukraine’s territory. Russia does not control any of the four in their entirety.
Ukraine has dismissed the announcement of referendums in the occupied regions as a “sham” stemming from the “fear of defeat,” while the the country’s Western supporters signaled they would not alter their support for Ukraine.
US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield condemned the expected referendums during a meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Tuesday, and reiterated the US would not recognize any attempt by Russia to “claim annexation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory.”
The Pentagon said on Tuesday that the referendums would have no credibility and would not impact US support for Ukraine.
The potential referendums have not been fully endorsed by the Kremlin, with Russian President Vladimir Putin having yet to comment on the plans. On Tuesday, reports circulated Putin was preparing to address the nation, but the address never materialized, and instead, analysts close to the Kremlin suggested it had been delayed until Wednesday morning local time.
But the announcements have received swift support from Russian politicians. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has publicly endorsed referendums in the self-declared Donbas republics, saying this would have “huge significance” for “systemic protection” of the residents.
Medvedev, who is vice-chairman of Russia’s National Security Council, said on his Telegram channel that once the republics were integrated into the Russian Federation, “not one future leader of Russia, not one official will be able to reverse these decisions.”
The announcement of the referendums also comes amid changes and proposals to shift how Russia codifies military service.
Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, amended the law on military service on Tuesday, toughening the punishment for violation of military service duties – such as desertion and evasion from service – according to state news agency TASS.
Separately, State Duma deputies and senators have prepared amendments to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, proposing to introduce liability of up to five years of jail time for the destruction or negligent damage of weapons and military equipment during wartime, state news agency RIA Novosti reported.
The deputies have also introduced concepts of “mobilization,” “martial law,” “wartime,” and “armed conflict” into the Criminal Code of Russia, which will now be regarded as aggravating factors in criminal sentencing.