The authorities installed by Moscow in four regions of Ukraine announced on Tuesday the urgent holding from September 23 to 27 of “referendums” of annexation by Russia, in the midst of the Ukrainian counter-offensive.
The Ukrainian presidency has sworn to “liquidate” the Russian threat.
President Vladimir Putin met with foreign diplomats and arms industry officials during the day, meaning he would stay the course.
Commentators raised the specter of a nuclear war if Russia annexed these territories, and the Kremlin considered that the war was taking place on its soil.
The separatist powers of the Lugansk and Donetsk regions announced these votes, as did the Russian occupation authorities of Kherson and Zaporijjia (south). These elections, scheduled for this week, will take place as Ukraine enters its 8th month of war.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz ruled that “these fictitious referendums are not acceptable”. The United States said it would “never” recognize the annexed territories, while NATO denounced a “new Russian escalation”.
These elections, on the model of the one which formalized the annexation of the Crimean peninsula (south) by Russia in 2014, denounced by kyiv and the West, have been the subject of preparations for several months.
The timetable seems to have accelerated with the Ukrainian counter-offensive which forced the Russian army to retreat to the northeast of the country. Russian officials mentioned until then the date of November 4, Day of Russian National Unity.
It was the head of the self-proclaimed “Parliament” of Lugansk, Denis Miroshnichenko who was the first to announce that the ballot would take place this week, over four days from Friday.
– “Blackmail” and Russian setbacks –
He was followed by the separatist leader of Donetsk and the heads of the occupation administrations of Kherson and Zaporizhia. All called on Mr. Putin to recognize the results of the vote.
Ukraine warned on Tuesday that the Russian threat would be “liquidated”, the head of the Ukrainian presidential administration, Andriï Iermak, denouncing Russian “blackmail” motivated by “fear of defeat”.
The head of diplomacy Dmytro Kouleba assured that Ukraine would “continue to liberate its lands”.
The announcements come after Russian setbacks in early September, with Moscow’s army withdrawing from the Kharkiv region in the face of pressure from kyiv forces, strong in supplies of Western weapons and equipment.
Russian diplomacy has also told the French ambassador in Moscow that the continuation of arms deliveries to Ukraine was “unacceptable”.
The Ukrainian army has also launched a counter-offensive on the Kherson region in the south. It is also on the offensive in the Lugansk region (east), which Moscow had conquered in its entirety in the spring at the cost of months of deadly fighting.
kyiv thus hopes to retake the village of Bilogorivka, the conquest of which had cost Russia dearly in May, its forces having been decimated while trying to cross the Siverskiï Donets river there. The images of the destroyed tanks had gone around the world.
Twenty kilometers away, from Siversk, Ukrainian artillery bombarded Russian positions.
“It hits very hard,” Natalia, a grocer in this town, told AFP, “in the morning we come out of the cellars, we see the houses burned.”
In the village, exhausted Ukrainian artillerymen rest on their self-propelled gun, covered by a tree. “We fired all night, we’re going to leave to reload (in ammunition, editor’s note) and come back afterwards,” said one of them.
– Nuclear weapon –
Mr. Putin met on Tuesday with arms manufacturers and security officials, calling for “accelerating production capacities” to “as quickly as possible to deliver the necessary armaments” to the army.
Receiving the credentials of new ambassadors, he insisted on the merits of his “sovereign” foreign policy, before the United Nations General Assembly which opens on Tuesday.
At the same time, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, the Duma, passed a text considerably toughening the prison sentences incurred by soldiers who surrender to the enemy, desert or commit looting.
Tuesday morning, ex-president Dmitry Medvedev and current number two of the Russian Security Council had judged that the “referendums” of annexation would restore “historical justice”, the Kremlin considering Ukraine as historically Russian.
“Encroaching on the territory of Russia is a crime and if committed, it allows you to use all forces in self-defense,” he threatened.
For independent Russian analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, the holding of these votes means that Putin wants to assume “the right to use atomic weapons to defend Russian territory”.
Margarita Simonian, the boss of the Russian television channel RT, judged that “we will remember this week as the antechamber of our imminent victory, or as the antechamber of nuclear war”.