Russia hurries to annex occupied Ukraine amid Kyiv’s gains
The Kremlin is moving hastily to stage sham votes on annexing the regions of Ukraine its forces still control, after Kyiv’s military drove Russian troops from large areas of territory taken in their seven-month-old invasion.
The so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics may hold their votes as soon as this weekend, Interfax quoted officials as saying on Tuesday. Ukraine and its allies have denounced the referendums as illegal and few countries are likely to recognise the results. Russian-backed officials in two other regions also announced plans to move quickly toward votes.
In Moscow, officials said they’d grant the regions’ requests to be annexed if they made them. Former President Dmitry Medvedev, who’s now deputy head of the Security Council, said the annexation would be “irreversible” and enable Russia to use “all possible force in self-defence” in the newly-acquired territory.
The move would help the Kremlin reassure supporters there worried by its hurried retreat from other territories in the face of the Ukrainian advance in the last few weeks. It also potentially gives the Kremlin the formal basis to use nuclear weapons to defend what it considers Russian territory.
By making the occupied zones formally part of Russia under the country’s laws, the votes may also allow the Kremlin to deploy conscript troops there, in addition to the current force of contract soldiers and military contractors. The Kremlin so far has avoided full mobilisation, aiming to limit the impact of the war on the broader population.
But with the annexation votes, Russia is “moving at full speed to create the legal basis for partial mobilisation,” said Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence colonel who became a commander of the Moscow-backed separatist forces in Donbas in 2014.
Annexation, even though it’s sure to be rejected internationally, could also complicate any future peace talks, as Russia has said it won’t cede territory it considers its own while Kyiv has refused to give up any land taken by Moscow.
The sudden moves to hold the votes in areas where fighting is still widespread and Russian forces control only part of the regions planned for annexation underlines the Kremlin’s desperation to find a way to counter Ukraine’s sudden battlefield successes.
Authorities in the occupied zones are struggling to ensure basic services and security and tens of thousands of residents have been displaced, making organising a true plebiscite all but impossible. Occupation officials said that they may use online voting, a technique that has been widely seen as a tool for fraud in Russian elections.
So far this month, Ukraine’s military has retaken about 10% of the land held by Russia, routing Moscow’s forces in the Kharkiv region in the northeast and pushing on the Kherson area in the south.
These have been the biggest setbacks for Russia since it pulled troops back from around Kyiv in the spring and led many observers to suggest the tide may be turning in the war.
Ukraine detained hundreds of people for collaborating with the occupation authorities after the Russian retreat and has threatened them with long prison terms.
Russian military bloggers and influential pro-Kremlin figures have been urging President Vladimir Putin to massively expand the scale of the struggling offensive in Ukraine, which the Kremlin continues to call a “special military operation.”
Otherwise, Russia risks more reverses faced with a much larger Ukrainian force that’s getting a huge flow of advanced Western weaponry, they’ve warned.
Putin last week vowed to pursue the attack on Ukraine despite the severe losses, saying he’s not “in a hurry” and is ready to step up attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.