New Twist May Raise the Stakes in Ukraine War

Separatist regions to hold quick referendums to become part of Russia
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 20, 2022 11:00 AM CDT
Updated Sep 24, 2022 11:30 AM CDT
New Twist May Raise the Stakes in Ukraine War
A Ukrainian soldier takes a selfie as an artillery system fires along the front line in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, on Sept. 3.   (AP Photo/Kostiantyn Liberov, File)

It's no secret that Ukraine's military has been making big gains against Russian forces, gains that have Ukrainian officials talking about forcing the Russians out completely. Now, however, comes a potentially major wrinkle. Amid the Ukrainian military surge, four regions at least partially controlled by Russian troops plan to hold referendums in the coming days to formally join Russia. Coverage:

  • The regions: Pro-Moscow separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, Kherson in the south, and Zaporizhzhia (about 250 miles west of Luhansk) have announced the referendums, reports the AP. The "long-suffering people of the Donbas have earned the right to be part of the great country that they always considered their motherland," says separatist leader Denis Pushilin in Donetsk. (That region and Luhansk make up the Donbas.) The votes begin Friday and will last a few days, though the logistics are very much up in the air, per Reuters.
  • Why now? The Washington Post sees the votes as "a sign of apparent panic that the Kremlin's war in Ukraine in failing." As in, these separatist leaders fear the Ukraine military push will accelerate and want to act now before it's too late. Ukraine leader Volodymyr Zelensky has a similar take, saying "the occupiers are clearly in a panic," per Reuters.

  • In Moscow: Not surprisingly, the Kremlin is on board with the movement. "The current situation confirms that they want to be the masters of their future," says Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, per the New York Times. Russia would be expected to quickly acknowledge the results of the referendums and formally annex the regions.
  • The risk: Ukraine and the West aren't expected to recognize any such referendums as valid. (The US warned in July of Russian "sham" votes like this.) Russia is an illegal occupier and thus "Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them, whatever Russia has to say," is how Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba put it. But if Russia considers the regions part of its own country, any subsequent attacks by Ukraine would be viewed by Moscow as an attack on Russia.
  • Spelling it out: "Encroachment onto Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self-defense," former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wrote on Telegram in a statement perceived as a warning to the West, per the Moscow Times. "This is why these referendums are so feared in Kyiv and the West." The Post quotes pro-war RT television exec Margarita Simonyan as warning that after Russia recognizes the regions, "strikes on the territory of Russia become a full-fledged war between Ukraine and NATO with Russia, untying Russia's hands in all respects."
(Read more Russia-Ukraine conflict stories.)

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