In challenge to West, Russia unfurls plan to annex swathes of Ukraine

2022-09-20T12:29:59Z
Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Security Council Dmitry Medvedev attends a military parade on Victory Day, which marks the 77th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, in Red Square in central Moscow, Russia May 9, 2022. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

Russia on Tuesday gave support to plans by separatists which it backs in Ukraine to hold referendums paving the way for the annexation of swathes of additional territory, a direct challenge to the West that could sharply escalate the conflict.

After nearly seven months of war, including a critical battlefield defeat in northeastern Ukraine, Putin is pondering his next steps in a conflict that has triggered the biggest confrontation with the West since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

In what appeared to be choreographed requests, Russian-backed officials across 15% of Ukrainian territory – an area about the size of Hungary or Portugal – lined up to request referendums on joining Russia. read more

The self-styled Donetsk (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republics (LPR), which Putin recognised as independent just before the invasion, and the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions have asked for votes over less than 24 hours.

Luhansk and Donetsk officials said the referendums would take place in just days, on Sept. 23-27.

Asked about the referendums, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “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.”

If Moscow formally annexed a vast additional chunk of Ukraine, Putin would essentially be daring the United States and its European allies to risk a direct military confrontation with Russia, the world’s biggest nuclear power.

“All this talk about immediate referendums is an absolutely unequivocal ultimatum from Russia to Ukraine and the West,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the political analysis firm R.Politik.

Dmitry Medvedev, who served as Russian president from 2008 to 2012 and is now deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, backed the referendums, which he said would change the path of Russian history and allow the Kremlin more options for defence of what he said would become Russian territory.

“Encroachment onto Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self–defence,” Medvedev said in a post on Telegram. “This is why these referendums are so feared in Kyiv and the West.”

“It is equally important that after the amendments to the constitution of our state, no future leader of Russia, no official will be able to reverse these decisions.”

Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the Duma, said he would support the folding in of parts of Ukraine that voted to join Russia.

Ukraine said the threat of referendums was “naive blackmail” and a sign Russia was running scared.

“This is what the fear of defeat looks like. The enemy is afraid, and obfuscates primitively,” said Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

“Ukraine will solve the Russian issue. The threat can only be eliminated by force.”

Ukraine says it will not rest until every Russian soldier is ejected from its territory. Kyiv says it will never accept Russian control over its territory and has called on the West to supply more and better arms to fight Russian forces.

U.S. President Joe Biden warned in March that a direct confrontation between the NATO military alliance and Russia would mean World War III. Biden and NATO leaders have been careful to say that they do not want NATO troops in direct conflict with Russian troops.

Putin and senior Russian generals and officials, though, already cast the conflict as a broader contest with the West which they say has sent Ukraine advanced weaponry and helps guide Ukrainian forces with intelligence and training that ultimately kills Russian troops.

Putin on Friday brushed off the lightning Ukrainian counteroffensive in recent weeks and cast the conflict as an attempt to prevent what he said was a Western plot to carved up and destroy Russia. read more

Russia’s parliament on Tuesday approved a bill to toughen punishments for a host of crimes such as desertion, damage to military property and insubordination if they were committed during military mobilisation or combat situations. read more

The conflict in eastern Ukraine began in 2014 after a pro-Russian president was toppled in Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and Russia annexed Crimea, while Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas – which is comprised of Donetsk and Luhansk – sought to break away from Kyiv’s control.

Russia sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24, the biggest land invasion in Europe since World War Two. Since the invasion, tens of thousands of people have been killed.

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