The Kremlin is in a dash to hold referendums in Ukrainian territories occupied by its troops to give grounds for President Vladimir Putin to absorb them into Russia as early as September, according to people familiar with the strategy.
Officials are preparing to organize votes in areas currently controlled by the Russian military and any others its troops are able to seize in coming weeks, three people said. The goal is to conduct referendums on joining Russia by Sept. 15, two of the people said, asking not to be identified because the issue is sensitive.
The project is directed by Sergei Kiriyenko, the Kremlin’s first deputy chief of staff, according to the people, with attention focused on the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Ukraine’s east as well as the southern territories of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Kiriyenko, who is under U.S. and European Union sanctions, regularly visits occupied territories to oversee officials preparing for the referendums, they said.
With its military struggling to advance in recent months, annexation would give the Kremlin a sign of apparent progress in the operation to show Russians and signal its unwillingness to discuss giving up the territories in any potential future peace talks. Still, it’s far from clear what votes Russia could hold after millions of Ukrainians fled their homes following Putin’s Feb. 24 order to invade, though the Kremlin has years of experience of rigging results in domestic elections.
While Russia has set up occupation authorities in some areas, introduced the ruble for transactions and begun to distribute passports, many remaining residents denounce its troops as occupiers. The international community would likely reject any referendums as illegal, as it did when Russia held a vote in Crimea after Putin seized the peninsula in 2014, though it could do little in practice to stop them.
The Kremlin denies publicly it’s planning votes in occupied regions even as officials on the ground are working on them. “The determination of the future destiny of those people is in their hands,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a message. “If they are going to make any referendums, it will be their decision.”
Russia has begun preparations for a referendum in occupied Luhansk, though there’s “no need for them because the occupation authorities may count however they like,” the region’s Ukrainian Gov. Serhiy Haidai said in TV comments Thursday. “The true referendum result is that more than 100,000 people have left the regional center” of Sievierodonetsk that was almost completely destroyed when Russian troops seized the city in June, he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday the goals of its military operations have expanded to include the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions and “other territories,” as well as the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics that Putin recognized as independent days before the invasion. He blamed US and European weapons supplies to Ukraine for the shift, in the transcript of an interview with state media published on the Foreign Ministry’s website.
Russia declared it had taken Luhansk region in early July, a claim rejected by Ukraine which says its troops continue to fight there. Fierce battles are taking place in neighboring Donetsk and Ukraine has said it’s amassing forces for a counter-offensive in the south, where it’s been challenging Russian troops that occupied Kherson region early in the war. Russian forces occupy about 60% of Zaporizhzhia region.
The territories represent Putin’s “basic goals,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R.Politik. He continues to seek the capitulation of Ukraine as part of a broader confrontation with the West and “without this he will never declare victory,” she said.
Ukraine’s being aided in its fight to repel the invasion by deliveries of U.S. and European weapons, including American-supplied HIMARS advanced long-range artillery that it has used in recent weeks to strike Russian supply lines and ammunition dumps far from the front lines. US Defense Secretary LLoyd Austin pledged to send four more HIMARS to Ukraine, bringing the total to 16, after a meeting Wednesday of 50 countries supporting the government in Kyiv.
The Kremlin’s plans may signal an intensification of fighting through the summer as Russia seeks to tighten its grip on territory, with little prospect for a return to peace talks that broke up without agreement early in the war. If Russia annexes all the areas it currently holds, it would control about a fifth of Ukraine, creating a land link to Crimea and threatening a stranglehold on key Black Sea export routes.
Russia is scheduled to hold its own regional elections on Sept. 11.
U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that Russia is starting “to roll out a version of what you could call an ‘annexation playbook’ very similar to the one we saw in 2014.” The U.S. will respond “swiftly and severely,” working with allies to impose more sanctions, if Russia goes ahead with sham referendums to justify annexation, he told reporters at a briefing.
Putin may raise the stakes by declaring that annexed Ukrainian territories are covered by Russia’s nuclear shield, according to a May 13 report by the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based think tank.
“Such actions would threaten Ukraine and its partners with nuclear attack if Ukrainian counteroffensives to liberate Russian-occupied territory continue,” it said.