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.
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.
The expected referendums, which run counter to international law upholding Ukraine’s sovereignty, have been announced as world leaders have descended on New York for a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, where the war and it impacts were already poised to loom large.
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.”
Potential for escalation
But the announcements have received swift support from Russian politicians. Former Russian President and vice-chairman of Russia’s National Security Council Dmitry Medvedev has publicly endorsed referendums in the self-declared Donbas republics, saying this would have “huge significance” for “systemic protection” of the residents.
“Encroachment on Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self-defense,” Medvedev said on his Telegram channel, in an apparent allusion to the potential for the military escalation.
“Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. You will change the face of war unlike anything since World War II,” Biden said, adding that the US response to such actions would be “consequential.”
The announcement of the referendums also comes amid changes and proposals to shift how Russia codifies military service, at a time when analysts have said its faces significant shortages of manpower.
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.
Josh Pennington, Uliana Pavlova and mouthshutreviews’s Jennifer Hansler, Anna Chernova and Tim Lister contributed to this report.