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4 Ukrainian regions controlled by Russia schedule votes this week to join Russia

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian-controlled regions of eastern and southern Ukraine announced plans on Tuesday to begin voting this week to become integral parts of Russia. Concerted and accelerated efforts backed by the Kremlin to gobble up four regions could set the stage for Moscow to escalate the war after Ukrainian successes on the battlefield.

The scheduling of referendums from Friday in the partially Russian-controlled Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions came after a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin said the votes were needed and that Moscow is losing ground in the invasion it began nearly seven months ago. , increasing pressure on the Kremlin for a firm response.

Former President Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council chaired by Putin, said referendums that would include regions within Russia itself would make the redrawn borders “irreversible” and allow Moscow to use “all means” to defend them.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba denounced the votes as a sham and tweeted that “Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will continue to liberate them whatever Russia has to say.”

The votes, in territory Russia already controls, are almost certain to go Moscow’s way, but they are unlikely to be recognized by Western governments who back Ukraine with military and other support that helped his forces gain momentum on the battlefields to the east and south.

Russian President Putin delivers a speech during a meeting on the military-industrial complex at the Kremlin September 20, 2022 in Moscow, Russia. Russian President Putin on Tuesday lambasted what he described as US efforts to preserve global dominance, saying they are doomed to failure.

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In Donetsk, a part of Ukraine’s wider Donbass region that has been plagued by rebel fighting since 2014 and which Putin has set as the primary target for the invasion, separatist leader Denis Pushilin said the vote will “restore historic justice of the “longtime” territory. suffering people. »

They “won the right to be part of the great country they have always called their home,” he said.

In Zaporizhzhia, partially occupied by Russia, pro-Russian activist Vladimir Rogov said: “The sooner we become part of Russia, the sooner peace will come.

Pressure inside Russia for votes and from Moscow-backed leaders in Ukrainian regions Moscow controls has increased after a Ukrainian counteroffensive – bolstered by Western-supplied weapons – resumed large areas.

Former Kremlin speechwriter and Russian political analyst Abbas Gallyamov said on Facebook that Moscow-backed separatists appeared “afraid the Russians would abandon them” amid Ukraine’s offensive and launched referendum plans to force the hand of the Kremlin.

In another signal that Russia is digging for a protracted and possibly intensified conflict, the Kremlin-controlled lower house of parliament voted on Tuesday to toughen laws against desertion, surrender and looting by Russian troops. Lawmakers also voted to introduce possible 10-year prison terms for soldiers refusing to fight. If approved, as expected, by the upper house and then signed by Putin, the legislation would strengthen the hands of commanders against reported faltering morale among soldiers.

4 Ukrainian regions controlled by Russia schedule votes this week to join Russia
Ukrainian soldiers ride in an armored tank in the town of Izium, recently liberated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, in the Kharkiv region. Russian troops occupied the city of Izium on April 1, 2022.

Photo by Oleksii Chumachenko/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was no prospect of a diplomatic settlement. Medvedev, who served as Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012, said on his messaging app channel that votes from breakaway regions are important to protect their residents and would “completely change” Russia’s future trajectory.

“Once they are detained and the new territories are incorporated into Russia, a geopolitical transformation of the world will become irreversible,” Medvedev said.

“Encroachment on Russian territory is a crime that would justify 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 return them. .

“That’s why they fear these referendums so much in Kyiv and in the West,” Medvedev said. “That’s why they must be held.”

Ukrainian analyst Volodymyr Fesenko, head of Kyiv-based independent think tank Penta Center, said the Kremlin hopes the votes and the possibility of a military escalation will increase pressure from Western governments for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to start talks with Moscow.

The decision “reflects the weakness, not the strength, of the Kremlin, which is struggling to find levers to influence the situation that is increasingly beyond its control,” he said.

The recapture of territory, notably in the region northeast of Kharkiv, has bolstered Ukraine’s arguments that its troops could deliver more crushing defeats to Russia with additional arms shipments.

More heavy weapons are on the way, with Slovenia pledging 28 tanks and Germany pledging four more self-propelled howitzers. Further help is also expected from Britain, already one of Ukraine’s biggest military backers after British Prime Minister Liz Truss is expected to promise that in 2023 her government will “match or exceed” the 2, £3 billion ($2.7 billion) in military aid. given to Ukraine this year.

The speed of the Ukrainian counteroffensive also saw Russian forces abandon armored vehicles and other weapons as they retreated hastily. Ukrainian forces recycle weapons captured in battle. A Washington-based think tank, the Institute for the Study of Warfare, said abandoned Russian T-72 tanks are being used by Ukrainian forces seeking to break into Russian-occupied Luhansk.

In the wake of the counteroffensive, Ukrainian officials found hundreds of graves near the once-occupied town of Izium. Yevhenii Yenin, deputy minister of Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, told a national television broadcast that officials had found many bodies “bearing signs of violent death”.

“They are broken ribs and broken heads, men with bound hands, broken jaws and severed genitals,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Southern Ukrainian Military Command said its troops sank a Russian barge carrying troops and weapons on the Dnieper River near the Russian-occupied town of Nova Kakhovka. He did not provide any further details on the attack in the Russian-occupied Kherson region, which has been a major target of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.

– Ukraine’s presidential office said further shelling killed three civilians and injured 19 others in 24 hours.

– Moscow likely moved its Kilo-class submarines from their station on the Crimean peninsula to southern Russia over fears they could be hit by long-range Ukrainian fire, the British military said.

– McDonald’s restaurants in Kyiv have started serving again for the first time since the invasion, initially only offering a delivery service, but marking a kind of return to the life Ukrainians knew before the war.

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