KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian-controlled regions of eastern and southern Ukraine announced plans Tuesday to begin voting this week to become an integral part of Russia. The Kremlin’s efforts to absorb the four regions could set the stage for an escalation of the war by Moscow following Ukraine’s successes on the battlefield.

Referendums in Luhansk, Kherson and the partially Russian-controlled Zaporozhye and Donetsk regions were scheduled for Friday after a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin said the votes were needed and as Moscow loses ground in the invasion that began nearly seven months ago.

Former President Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council under Putin’s presidency, said that referendums that would annex the regions to Russia itself would make the redrawing of borders “irreversible” and allow Moscow to use “any means” to protect them.

In 2014, Russia sent troops to Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and then held a referendum there, which paved the way for its annexation by Moscow.

The upcoming vote in the territory already controlled by Russia will almost certainly go in Moscow’s favor. But they were quickly dismissed as illegitimate by Western leaders, who have backed Kyiv with military and other support that has helped his forces seize momentum on the battlefields in the east and south.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Dmitriy Kuleba, condemned the planned vote as a sham.

“Referendums won’t change anything,” he told reporters at UN headquarters, where he is attending the annual General Assembly meeting of world leaders. “For Russia, this is an act of desperation, but it will not help them.”

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the United States would “never recognize this territory as anything other than part of Ukraine,” he said, adding that the Kremlin’s efforts reflected Russia’s failures on the battlefield.

“These are not the actions of a self-confident country. These are not acts of force,” he said.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who is also attending the UN General Assembly in New York, said: “It is very, very clear that these sham referendums cannot be accepted.”

French President Emmanuel Macron called the referendum plans “cynicism”.

“Russia has declared war… and now explains that it is going to organize a referendum in the same region. If it wasn’t tragic, it might be funny,” he said, adding that the vote would have “no legal consequences.”

The authorities established by Russia in the occupied territories of four Ukrainian regions have outlined plans to hold referendums on membership in the Russian Federation at the end of this month. They were condemned by Ukraine.

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevičs called for more sanctions against Russia and more weapons for Ukraine, tweeting: “We must say no to Russian blackmail.”

In Donetsk, part of Ukraine’s vast Donbass region that Putin has made the main target of the invasion, separatist leader Denis Pushylin said the vote would “restore historical justice” to the territory’s “long-suffering people”.

They “earned the right to be part of a great country that they have always considered their homeland,” he said.

In Zaporozhye, which is partially occupied by Russia, pro-Russian activist Vladimir Rohau said: “The sooner we become part of Russia, the sooner peace will come.”

Pressure inside Russia for the vote, and from Moscow-backed leaders in Moscow-controlled Ukrainian regions, intensified after the Ukrainian counteroffensive, which recaptured large swathes of territory.

Former Kremlin speechwriter and Russian political analyst Abbas Galyamov said on Facebook that the Moscow-backed separatists appear to be “afraid that the Russians will abandon them” amid the Ukrainian offensive and are pursuing plans for a referendum to force the Kremlin’s hand.

In another sign that Russia is digging into a protracted and possibly escalating conflict, the Kremlin-controlled lower house of parliament voted on Tuesday to toughen laws against desertion, surrender and looting by Russian forces. Lawmakers also voted to introduce a possible 10-year prison sentence for soldiers who refuse to fight.

If approved by the upper house, as expected, and then signed by Putin, the legislation will strengthen the hands of commanders against falling morale among soldiers.

In an interview with “PBS News Hour” in New York, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that in order for peace to reign in Ukraine, “the return of the captured land will become really important.”

He also reiterated his long-standing position that the Crimean peninsula should be returned to Ukraine. Turkey has strong ethnic ties with the Crimean Tatars. “Since 2014, we have been talking to my dear friend Putin about this, and this is what we have asked him to do,” he said.

In the Russian-occupied city of Energodar on Tuesday, shelling of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant damaged a cooling system, a staff canteen and an unnamed “special building”, the city administration said in a statement. More information about damage.

The Zaporozhye nuclear power plant has been in the spotlight for months over concerns that the shelling could lead to a radiation leak. Russia and Ukraine blame each other for the shelling.

The press secretary of the Kremlin, Dmitriy Piaskov, stated that there are no prospects for a diplomatic settlement of the conflict. Medvedev, who served as Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012, said on his messaging app channel that the referendums were important to protect residents and would “completely change” Russia’s future trajectory.

“After they are held and new territories are taken over by Russia, the geopolitical transformation of the world will become irreversible,” Medvedev said.

“An attack on Russian territory is a crime that requires any means of self-defense,” he said, adding that Russia would enshrine the new territories in its constitution so that no future Russian leader could take them back.

“That’s why Kiev and the West are so afraid of these referendums,” Medvedev said. “That’s why they need to be kept.”

Ukrainian analyst Vladimir Fyasenko, head of the independent think tank Penta Center in Kyiv, said the Kremlin hopes the vote and the possibility of military escalation will increase pressure from Western governments on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open talks with Moscow.

The move “reflects the weakness, not the strength, of the Kremlin, which is struggling to find leverage in a situation that is increasingly out of its control,” he said.

The return of territory, especially in the northeast of the Kharkiv region, has strengthened Ukraine’s argument that its troops can inflict more severe defeats on Russia with additional arms deliveries.

More heavy weapons on the way, Slovenia promises 28 tanks and Germany promised to supply four additional self-propelled howitzers. More help is also expected from Britain, which is already one of Ukraine’s biggest military backers after British Prime Minister U.S. Liz Truss is expected to promise that in 2023 her government will “match or exceed” the 2.3 billion pounds ($2.7 billion) in military aid given to Ukraine this year.

The speed of the Ukrainian counteroffensive also led to Russian troops abandoning armored vehicles and other weapons as they hurriedly retreated. Ukrainian forces return captured weapons to the battle. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said abandoned Russian T-72 tanks are being used by Ukrainian forces seeking to advance into Russian-occupied Luhansk.

As a result of the counteroffensive, the Ukrainian authorities found hundreds of graves near the once occupied city of Izyum. Yevgeny Yenin, Ukraine’s deputy interior minister, said on national television that officials found many bodies “with signs of violent death.”

“These are broken ribs and smashed heads, men with their hands tied, their jaws broken and their genitalia cut off,” he said.

Attorney General Andrei Kostin, on a trip to Washington, said on Tuesday that another mass burial with possibly 100 bodies had been discovered in another village in the counteroffensive zone.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Southern Military Command said its troops sank a Russian barge carrying troops and weapons across the Dnieper River near the Russian-occupied town of Novaya Kakhovka. It did not contain any other details about the attack in the Russian-occupied Kherson region, which was the main target of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.


Follow AP’s war coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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