West denounces Russia's referendum in occupied Ukraine areas

Western leaders condemn Moscow's vote plans for Ukrainian territory about the size of Hungary

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on Tuesday.  Sputnik / Kremlin Pool / AP
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Ukraine and its allies have condemned plans by Moscow to hold referendums on whether four occupied areas of the country want to join Russia, in a challenge to the West that could sharply escalate the war.

"The Russians can do whatever they want. It will not change anything," Ukraine's Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said at the UN.

"Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say," Mr Kuleba added in a tweet.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Tuesday praised western allies for their condemnation of plans by authorities in pro-Moscow regions of Ukraine to hold the referendums.

"I thank all the friends and partners of Ukraine for their massive and firm condemnation of Russia's intentions to organise yet more pseudo-referendums," Mr Zelenskyy said in his daily address.

He played down the importance of the plans by pro-Russian authorities in the regions of Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia to hold the votes from September 23 to 27.

"Today there was pretty big news from Russia. But what actually happened? Have we heard anything we didn't hear before?" Mr Zelenskyy said.

"Our position does not change according to this noise or any other announcement. Let's preserve our unity, protect Ukraine, liberate our land and not show any weakness."

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg decried Moscow's plans for what he called “sham” referendums in occupied parts of Ukraine, warning President Vladimir Putin against further escalating the conflict.

“Such sham votes, referendums, do not have any legitimacy, and therefore they do not change the nature of the conflict,” Mr Stoltenberg told Bloomberg TV on Tuesday.

“This will only further worsen the situation, and therefore we need to provide more support to Ukraine.”

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Washington rejected any such referendums "unequivocally," and the EU and Canada also 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 used the word "parody" to describe the planned votes.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz denounced the plans, saying they must be rejected by the international community.

"It is very, very clear that these sham referendums cannot be accepted and are not covered by international law," Mr Scholz said outside the UN General Assembly.

He called the referendums "part of an intent of imperialist aggression" by Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February, prompting condemnation and sanctions by western powers.

"Russia must withdraw its troops," Mr Scholz said.

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

Russia already considers Luhansk and Donetsk, which 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.

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

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"Encroachment on to Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self–defence," Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president and now 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 US 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", Mr Macron said in New York, where leaders were arriving for a UN General Assembly meeting likely to be dominated by the war in Ukraine.

A spokesman for Mr Nauseda quoted him as saying: "These regions are and will be Ukraine, and Russia's sham referendums are illegal. Lithuania will never recognise them."

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Making fighting in occupied territory look like an attack on Russia could give Moscow a justification to move in its two million military reservists.

Moscow has so far resisted such a move despite mounting losses in what it calls a limited "special military operation", rather than a war.

Mr Sullivan said Washington was aware of reports that Mr Putin might be considering ordering a mobilisation, which the US official said would do nothing to undermine Ukraine's ability to fight back against Russian aggression.

Russia has declared capturing all of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces to be its main aim since its invasion forces were defeated in March on the outskirts of Kyiv.

It now holds about 60 per cent of Donetsk and had captured nearly all of Luhansk by July after slow advances during months of intense fighting.

Those gains are now under threat after Russian forces were driven from neighbouring Kharkiv province this month, losing control of their main supply lines for much of the Donetsk and Luhansk front lines.

The referendums were announced a day after Ukraine said its troops had recaptured a foothold in Luhansk, the village of Bilohorivka, and were preparing to advance across the province.

The general staff of Ukraine's armed forces said on Tuesday evening that its operations in Donetsk near the towns of Bakhmut and Avdiivka caused Russia to suffer "significant losses".

But Russia shelled those towns and dozens more in north-eastern and southern Ukraine, the general staff said. Reuters could not independently verify those reports.

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In the south, Russia controls most of Zaporizhzhia but not its regional capital.

In Kherson, where the regional capital is the only major city Russia has so far captured intact since the invasion, Ukraine has launched a major counter-offensive.

Unverified footage on social media showed Ukrainian forces in Bilohorivka, which is only 10 kilometres west of the city of Lysychansk that fell to the Russians after weeks of some of the war's most intense fighting in July.

"There will be fighting for every centimetre," the Ukrainian governor of Luhansk, Serhiy Gaidai, wrote on Telegram. "The enemy is preparing their defence. So we will not simply march in."

Pro-Russian officials have said the referendums could be held electronically. Russia staged a referendum in Crimea eight years ago before declaring the former Ukrainian territory annexed.

In a move designed to shore up Russia's military in Ukraine, its Parliament on Tuesday approved a bill to toughen punishments for a host of crimes such as desertion, damage to military property and insubordination, if they were committed during mobilisation or combat situations.

Updated: September 21, 2022, 12:32 AM