Ukraine, West denounce Russian referendum plans for occupied regions

KYIV: Moscow-installed leaders in occupied areas of four Ukrainian regions plan to hold referendums on joining Russia in coming days, a challenge to the West that could sharply escalate the war and drew condemnation from Ukraine and its allies.

“The Russians can do whatever they want. It will not change anything,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Tuesday (Sep 20) in response to reporters’ questions at the United Nations.

In a tweet, he added: “Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say.”

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Washington rejected any such referendums “unequivocally”, and the European Union and Canada condemned the plan.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc and its member states would not recognise the outcome of the referendums and would consider further measures against Russia if the votes went ahead.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda both used the word “parody” to describe the planned votes.

In the apparently coordinated move, pro-Russian figures announced referendums for Sep 23-27 in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces, representing around 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory, or an area about the size of Hungary.

Russia already considers Luhansk and Donetsk, which together make up the Donbas region Moscow partially occupied in 2014, to be independent states. Ukraine and the West consider all parts of Ukraine held by Russian forces to be illegally occupied.

MOSCOW TO ORDER MOBILISATION?

Some pro-Kremlin figures framed the referendums as an ultimatum to the West to accept Russian territorial gains or face an all-out war with a nuclear-armed foe.

“Encroachment onto Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self–defence,” Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president and now hawkish deputy chairman of President Vladimir Putin’s Security Council, said on social media.

Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the pro-Kremlin RT TV station, wrote: “Today a referendum, tomorrow recognition as part of the Russian Federation, the day after tomorrow strikes on Russian territory become a full-fledged war between Ukraine and NATO and Russia, untying Russia’s hands in every respect.”

The United States and NATO allies that have been backing Ukraine with weapons and other support said such plebiscites would be meaningless.

If the referendum plan “wasn’t so tragic it would be funny”, Macron told reporters in New York, where leaders were arriving for a United Nations General Assembly meeting likely to be dominated by the war in Ukraine.

A spokesperson for Lithuania’s Nauseda quoted him as saying: “These regions are and will be Ukraine, and Russia’s sham referendums are illegal. Lithuania will never recognise them.”