20 September 2022
MOSCOW PAVES WAY FOR ANNEXATION WITH REFERENDUMS IN OCCUPIED REGIONS AND TOUGHER CONSCRIPTION LAWS
Ukrainian officials have decried the referendums, which are due to take place across four regions between 23 and 27 September
NATO has accused Moscow of escalating its war on Ukraine after Kremlin allies in occupied territories announced referendums to join Russia and the country's parliament approved legislation that clears the way for military mobilisation.
Four Moscow-controlled regions in Ukraine will hold votes this week, a step that the Kremlin has resisted to date and which western powers and Kyiv immediately denounced as a sham.
Russia's Duma also passed a law on Tuesday to increase penalties for desertion and evasion of conscription in the event of mobilisation, a further sign of Moscow's hardening stance.
Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of Nato, decried the referendums as "a further escalation" of the war. "Sham referendums have no legitimacy and do not change the nature of Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine," he said.
Russian president Vladimir Putin's administration has been on the back foot since losing thousands of square kilometres of territory to Ukrainian forces this month, increasing the clamour from pro-war hawks for full-blown annexation and mobilisation.
The referendums will take place between 23 and 27 September and be held on two territories — the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics — ruled by Russian-backed strongmen since they broke away from Kyiv in 2014.
Votes will also be held in Kherson and parts of Zaporizhzhia province, two southern regions Russian forces seized when they invaded Ukraine this year and where Moscow's grip on power has remained shaky.
The votes follow a 2014 referendum in Crimea on joining Russia, which was not widely recognised internationally.
Western analysts have suggested that annexing further territories could allow Moscow to claim that Nato arms provision to Ukraine amounted to an attack on Russia itself.
"Encroachment on to Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self-defence," said former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. "This is why these referendums are so feared in Kyiv and the west." He added that the votes were a "restoration of historical justice" and "will completely change the direction of Russia's development for decades".