Russia vows "full protection" to territories annexed from Ukraine
Russia will offer "full protection" to the Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine that vote in referendums to join Russia, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a press conference Saturday.
Why it matters: Decried by Ukrainian and Western officials as a "sham," the referendums are taking place from Friday through Tuesday in the regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia and could lead to the annexation of nearly 15% of Ukraine.
What they're saying: At a news conference following his address to the UN General Assembly, Lavrov said that if the territories where the referendums are taking place are annexed by Russia, they will be granted Russia's "full protection," Reuters reported.
- Asked whether Russia would be willing to use nuclear weapons to defend the annexed regions, Lavrov replied that all Russian territory, including parts to be "further enshrined" in Russia's constitution in the future, "is under the full protection of the state."
- Ukraine's foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba subsequently slammed the allusion to the use of nuclear weapons as "absolutely unacceptable."
The big picture: The U.S. initially warned that Russia could be planning to annex the four territories back in July.
- The referendums come after Russia suffered one of its biggest setbacks of the war when Ukrainian forces started a lightning counteroffensive this month.
- By annexing the Ukrainian regions, Russia could paint any efforts to retake them as direct attacks on itself, increasing the risk of direct military confrontation between itself and NATO, which is arming Ukrainian forces.
- Russia's Duma on Thursday may debate bills on incorporating the Russian-controlled Ukrainian territories into Russia, Russian state news agencies reported, per Reuters.