Updated Sep 20, 2022 - World

Kremlin-backed separatists in Ukraine plan votes to join Russia

A boy rides a bicycle near an armored tank with a Ukrainian flag in the town of Izium, recently liberated by Ukrainian Armed Forces, in the Kharkiv region

A boy rides his bike near an armored tank with a Ukrainian flag in the town of Izium, recently liberated by Ukrainian Armed Forces, in the Kharkiv region. Photo: Oleksii Chumachenko/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Kremlin on Tuesday paved the way for referendums, described by Ukraine as "sham" votes, in separatist territories controlled by Russia that could lead to the annexation of nearly 15% of Ukraine.

The big picture: The planned votes come after Russia suffered one of its biggest setbacks of the war when Ukrainian forces started a lightning counter-offensive earlier this month.

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin last week promised to continue the offensive push in Ukraine, saying, "We aren't in a rush."

Why it matters: The plans could dramatically raise the stakes of any future territorial losses, and could preclude any peace agreement that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky may find acceptable, Axios' Dave Lawler reports.

Driving the news: In a seemingly coordinated effort, separatists in the Donetsk and the Luhansk People's Republics proposed referendums to join Russia, with votes potentially coming as soon as this weekend, according to Russia's Interfax news agency.

  • Ukraine has said the referendums are illegal and most of the international community is unlikely to recognize the results of the votes.

What they're saying: "Sham 'referendums' will not change anything," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted.

  • "Russia has been and remains an aggressor illegally occupying parts of Ukrainian land," he added. "Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say."

"From the very start of the operation ... we said that the peoples of the respective territories should decide their fate, and the whole current situation confirms that they want to be masters of their fate," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, per Reuters.

  • Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's president from 2008 to 2012 and the current deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, said that "no official will be able to reverse" the referendums.
  • "Encroachment onto Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self–defense," Medvedev said.

The latest: During a White House press conference Tuesday, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that the U.S. will never recognize any of Russia’s claims to any purportedly annexed parts of Ukraine.

  • “These referenda are an affront to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity that underpin the international system and lie at the heart of the United Nations’ charter," Sullivan said. “We know that these referenda will be manipulated. We know that Russia will use these sham referenda as a basis to purportedly annex these territories either now or in the future.”
  • "We will never recognize this territory as anything other than as part of Ukraine. We reject Russia’s actions unequivocally and we will continue to work with our allies and partners to impose costs on Russia and to provide historic support for Ukraine."
  • Sullivan also commented on reports that Putin may be preparing to enact mobilization efforts, saying, “Like its sham annexation planning, this is reflective of Russia’s struggles in Ukraine. ... Russia is throwing together sham referendums on 3-days' notice as they continue to lose ground on the battlefield and as more world leaders distance themselves from Russia on the public stage."
  • “Russia is scraping for personnel to throw into this fight. These are not the actions of a confident country. These are not acts of strength — quite the opposite," Sullivan said.

Go deeper... Putin's "annexation playbook" in Ukraine could leave no path to peace

This story has been updated with statements from U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

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