Kremlin-controlled areas of southern and eastern Ukraine announced Tuesday they would stage votes this week on formally joining Russia, moves that were cheered in Moscow and dismissed by Kyiv and its allies as a desperate attempt to stem the tide of a successful counteroffensive by Ukrainian troops.
President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, urged defense industry chiefs to boost military production and Russia's parliament approved a bill to toughen punishments for a host of crimes, including desertion, if they are committed during periods of mobilization or martial law.
The sudden flurry of activity signaled that the Kremlin could be preparing to dramatically intensify its efforts in a conflict that has dragged on for nearly seven months and recently tilted away from its forces. Its public backers delighted in the prospect of an “all-out war” and a new confrontation with the West, which warned holding “sham” votes in those areas would represent an illegal escalation.
It was unclear what impact holding such votes would have on the ground, with analysts suggesting the sudden moves may betray a growing concern over how much longer Russia’s struggling military can maintain control over the land it has occupied.
Separatist officials in the eastern areas of Luhansk and Donetsk, as well as the southern Kherson region and the partially occupied Zaporizhzhia, announced they would hold the votes over four days starting Friday, Russia’s state news agency Tass reported.
It wasn't clear if the proposed annexation would cover the entire territory of the provinces or only the areas currently occupied by Russian forces.
The swift developments come just a week after Ukraine successfully reclaimed swaths of territory, in what many observers said could be a decisive shift that exposed Russian military vulnerability and provoked criticism from even fervent Kremlin supporters.
Washington condemned the planned votes as a "sham" it would never recognize.
"We are aware of reports that President Putin may be preparing to enact mobilization measures. Like its sham annexation planning, this is reflective of Russia’s struggles in Ukraine," White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said.
French President Emmanuel Macron called the planned votes “cynical” and “a parody.” Speaking in New York City, where world leaders are attending the United Nations General Assembly, he told reporters that if the “idea wasn’t so tragic, it would be funny.”
Kyiv has been boosted by Western-supplied weapons, including long-range rocket systems supplied by the United States, leading voices on Russian state media to argue that the country is fighting not just Ukraine, but also NATO.
Putin has so far resisted calls from nationalist voices and pro-military bloggers for general mobilization, a move that could boost his ailing forces but may prove unpopular with the Russian public.
The Russian leader was expected to deliver an address to the nation later Tuesday, further stoking speculation about what he might announce, but had not appeared hours after his scheduled time.
One of the Kremlin’s most hawkish figures, former President Dmitry Medvedev, said Monday that holding the referendums was “of great importance,” while signaling that absorbing the Donbas provinces would make encroaching on them equivalent to striking Russia, raising the risk of further escalation if Ukrainian troops continue to advance in the area.
The editor-in-chief of the Kremlin-backed channel RT, Margarita Simonyan, who has been one of the most vocal proponents of the war, also invoked the idea of red lines.
“Today a referendum, tomorrow — recognition as part of the Russian Federation, the day after tomorrow — strikes on the territory of Russia become a full-fledged war between Ukraine and NATO with Russia, untying Russia’s hands in all respects,” she said in a post on Telegram.
News of the planned referendums was condemned by Kyiv.
“Sham ‘referendums’ will not change anything,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said. “Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say,” he said in a tweet.
The head of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office, Andriy Yermak, said the referendums are part of Russia’s “naïve blackmail.”
“This is what the fear of defeat looks like,” he wrote in a post on the Telegram messaging app.
“This is the reaction to the fact that they cannot hold territory with the current conventional forces that they have, so they have to create this additional safeguard by annexing this territory formally,” said Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow at the London think tank Chatham House. “They want to make the territories Russian proper, so that then they can threaten with nuclear blackmail,” she added.
Russia held a vote to annex the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, with most of the international community rejecting the results.
But this time, the referendums come amid a full-scale invasion.
Russia captured the entire Luhansk region in July after fierce fighting, and has been battling Ukraine’s forces in neighboring Donetsk. The two provinces together form the industrial Donbas region, which Moscow has made the primary goal of what it calls its “special military operation” since failing to seize the capital, Kyiv.
Russian-backed separatists in the region had been fighting Ukrainian forces in a deadly conflict since 2014. Putin recognized the independence of the breakaway regions in the buildup to his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February.