Russia Signals Annexation of Parts of Ukraine, Raising Stakes in Fighting

After staggering defeats on the battlefield, Russia has moved to fortify the territory it holds in eastern and southern Ukraine, as Kremlin proxies there announce plans for a referendum. on Tuesday about annexation to Russia, suggesting war could escalate.

The Kremlin has signaled that if Russia continues to annex – even if no other country recognizes it – any further military action by Ukraine in those areas could be seen as an attack. attacks against Russia itself, justifying any military response by that country to the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

“Encroaching on Russian territory is a crime, the commission allows you to use all the forces of self-defence,” wrote Dmitri A. Medvedev, former Russian President and Vice Chairman of Putin’s Security Council. on the social network Telegram on Tuesday, describing the referendums as of “great significance”.

Ukraine and its supporters, including the United States, say any election allegedly conducted by Russian authorities would be a manipulated farce, conducted under a harsh, forced occupationin an ongoing war, over territory from which millions have fled.

Adding to the feeling that Russia is raising the stakes, the country’s parliament on Tuesday quickly passed legislation that would impose criminal penalties on soldiers for deserting, surrendering or refusing to obey orders. during “mobilization” and “martial law”. The act made predictions that Mr. Putin could declare war on Ukraine and order a large-scale draft, moves he has avoided to try to preserve a sense of normalcy for most Russians.

In the weeks since Russian forces retreated in the northeastern region of Kharkiv, ceding a vast swath of territory they had captured earlier in the war, world leaders have wondered whether President Trump would ever be able to see him again. What will Russian President Putin do next? Officials in four regions in eastern and southern Ukraine that are partially held by Russia gave at least partial answers, saying voting on whether to join Russia would begin on Friday and lasted for five days.

But one voice was missing from Tuesday’s rapid developments: that of Mr. Putin. He made several public appearances, at one point discussing tourism developments in southern Russia, but he did not mention the referendums, although state media figures The Russian celebrity wrote on social media that he will give a big televised speech in front of the whole country on Tuesday night.

People waited for hours to see an address that did not materialize, until Russian news agencies reported that Mr. Putin was scheduled to speak on Wednesday. The Kremlin said nothing about whether Mr. Putin would say anything. Across the political spectrum, speculation has swirled about apparent back-and-forth behind the Kremlin’s walls – and the possibility that Mr. Putin could announce a major escalation of war.

“The longer the appearance of President Putin is announced, the more serious the announcements will be,” said pro-Kremlin analyst who regularly appears on state television, Sergei Markov, posted on Telegram.

Since the start of the invasion on February 24, Mr Putin has referred to it only as a “special military operation”. Even as Ukraine views the invasion as a full-fledged war, enlisting old enough people in the army and banning them from leaving the country, Putin has largely fought his army at peacetime force. , although casualties increased rapidly.

Hawks are increasingly frustrated that Putin has not been more assertive in waging war, tensions flared after Russia’s humiliating retreat this month. Putin last week hinted that he was prepared to escalate the war, describing recent Russian missile attacks on vital Ukrainian infrastructure as “warning attacks”.

He also stated that he was ready to negotiate with Kyiv – even as Ukrainian officials dismiss the possibility of compromise because of the “pervasive terror, violence, torture and mass murder” that the Russian military has brought to their country.

Grigorii Golosov, professor of political science at the European University in St. Petersburg, thinks the referendums could be a prelude to Russia’s military escalation in Ukraine – and an attempt to subject the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky and his supporters to submission and strengthening The West is afraid of a direct war between Russia and NATO. But Mr. Golosov also left the door open for Mr. Putin’s willingness to compromise amid threats he was in.

“It is very likely that by using such radical but non-military actions, the Kremlin will in fact show that it is ready to engage in political conflicts,” Golosov said in a telephone interview. real negotiations. “Many politicians are known to escalate their demands before moving on to actual negotiations, and this is a normal negotiating tactic, at least for dictators.”

The possibility of Russia annexing parts of Ukraine emerged amid much of the war. For months, the Russian occupation authorities in eastern and southern Ukraine said they were planning a referendum calling on Moscow to annex those areas and claim them as Russian territory. , and Mr. Putin has made those areas a legitimate part of his country.

The Kremlin, however, remains a mystery as to when and whether those referendums will take place, seemingly seeking to keep its options open as Russian forces struggle to achieve their own advantages. great interests on the front lines. But Ukraine’s unexpected battlefield gains this month have forced Putin to step in, analysts say.

The move comes as Mr Putin is struggling to recover from setbacks not only on the battlefield but also on the international stage. At a regional summit in Uzbekistan last week, Putin acknowledged for the first time that the leaders of both China and India – important supporters of the Russian economy amid the sanctions Western sanctions – there is “concern” about war. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who has tried to mediate the conflict, this week said the invasion of Ukraine was unjustified and Russia must return the occupied territory.

Territorial annexation is the precedent Putin set with Crimea in 2014, which came after a referendum widely dismissed by the West as fraudulent – Russian authorities claimed 97 percent of the vote for union. Russia – but Mr Putin has justified his threat that he is ready for an all-out war if Ukraine tries to retake the peninsula by force.

President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, on Tuesday referred to plans to vote “sham” in other regions as a possible premise for the Kremlin trying to mobilize more Russian public for the war. “The United States will never recognize Russia’s claims” to any of Ukraine’s occupied areas, Mr. Sullivan told reporters.

A senior State Department official added on Tuesday that the United States has “made it clear that there will be increased consequences” if Russian forces expand or intensify their occupation of parts of Ukraine. The official told reporters that allies and partners would be willing to participate in any escalation, but declined to provide further details on the plan.

On Monday, Russian propaganda released what appeared to be a screenplay meant to show a popular base in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine to join Russia. .

First, Russian state media report that a civil advisory body to the government “Luhansk People’s Republic” had launched “an initiative to immediately hold a referendum” to recognize the region “as a constituent entity of the Union”. Russian state.” Luhansk is one of two eastern Ukrainian provinces inhabited by Russian-backed rebels that Putin declared independence in February.

Later, the parallel body of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” – another breakaway province – also called for a referendum. The leader of the Russian-backed region, Denis Pushilin, then posted on social media a video showed him holding the phone to his ear and intentionally telling his Luhansk counterpart to discuss protesting the referendum.

“This is nothing but a reflection of the views our people have had for a long time,” he said.

On Tuesday, the occupying authorities of two other Ukrainian regions – Kherson and Zaporizka – also announced the referendum plan.

The move comes as Russia prepares for a furious Ukrainian counteroffensive, and after Russia’s embarrassing withdrawal from Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region this month. The Zaporizka region remains partially controlled by Ukraine, including its main city, Zaporizhzhia. In the Kherson region to the south, which Russia quickly captured after its invasion in February, Ukraine is waging a counter-offensive, though its progress is deliberate and costly in terms of casualties.

The head of the Russian-imposed Kherson region, Kirill Stremousov, said of the region’s residents on Tuesday, “They’re afraid that Russia will leave. according to RIA Novosti. “People want to make sure they don’t get left behind.”

By Tuesday afternoon, the occupation authorities of all four regions had announced the timing of the referendum. On social media, Russian war cheerleaders, who have criticized the Kremlin for not being aggressive enough in Ukraine, celebrated these developments as a possible turning point.

Jim Tankersley, Marc Santora, Edward Wong and Ivan Nechepurenko contribution report.

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