Pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine to hold annexation votes

Officials in four Russian-controlled regions in eastern and southern Ukraine have said they will hold referendums on becoming part of Russia from September 23 to 27, which could set the stage for Moscow to escalate the war.

Ukraine dismissed it as a stunt by Russia to try to reclaim the initiative after crushing losses on the battlefield.

“Sham ‘referendums’ will not change anything,” tweeted Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

“Russia has been and remains an aggressor illegally occupying parts of Ukrainian land. Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say.”

Votes will take place in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics of the Donbas region, which Russian President Vladimir Putin recognised as independent shortly before sending troops to Ukraine in February, according to officials and news agencies.

A vote will also be held in the southern Kherson region that Moscow’s troops captured in the early days of Russia’s offensive in Ukraine, and in the partly Russian-controlled Zaporizhia region.

Their integration into Russia would represent a significant escalation of the conflict in Ukraine as Moscow would be able to say it is defending its own territory from Ukrainian forces.

“The People’s Council ruled … to set the days of the referendum for September 23 to September 27,” separatist official Denis Miroshnichenko said as quoted by a Luhansk news portal.

“The long-suffering people of Donbas deserve to be part of the Great Country, which they always considered their Motherland,” Pushilin said on social media.

“I am sure that the entry of the Kherson region into the Russian Federation will secure our territory and restore historical justice,” the Moscow-installed head of that region, Vladimir Saldo, said in a statement on Tuesday announcing the September vote.

Russian forces control about 95 percent of Ukraine’s Kherson territory in the south of the country.

The head of the Russian-installed administration in Zaporizhia, Yevgeny Balitsky, said on Telegram: “Today I signed an order on the holding of a referendum on the territorial allegiance of the region” from September 23 to 27.

The US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told Al Jazeera that the annexation referendums “will not be recognised by anyone in the international community”.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg denounced the plans by Russian-backed forces, warning that they were yet another escalation in the war brought on by the Kremlin.

“Sham referendums have no legitimacy and do not change the nature of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. This is a further escalation in Putin’s war,” he wrote on Twitter.

“The international community must condemn this blatant violation of international law and step up support for Ukraine,” he added.

The Kremlin has repeatedly said the issue is a matter for the local Russian-installed officials and citizens of the regions to decide.

Saldo’s remarks echoed those made by Kremlin ally and former President Dmitry Medvedev earlier on Tuesday, in which he called for the Kremlin to let the separatists join Russia.

Shortly after Saldo’s announcement about plans for a vote in Kherson, the head of Russia’s parliament said he would support the regions joining Russia.

Large parts of the industrial Donbas area have been controlled by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014, after nationwide demonstrations deposed Ukraine’s Kremlin-friendly president.

Russia at the time annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine with a vote that was criticised by Kyiv and the West, which imposed sanctions in response.

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