Four areas of Ukraine controlled by pro-Moscow forces were preparing on Friday to hold referendums on joining Russia, a move widely condemned by the west as illegitimate and a precursor to illegal annexation.
Voting in the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces, representing about 15% of Ukrainian territory, is due to run from Friday to Tuesday.
Russian-installed leaders announced on Tuesday plans for the votes, a challenge to the west that could sharply escalate the war. The results are seen as a foregone conclusion in favour of annexation, and Ukraine and its allies have already made clear they will not recognise the results.
Kyiv this month launched a counteroffensive that has recaptured large swathes of territory, seven months after Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, starting a war that has killed thousands, displaced millions and damaged the global economy.
The referendums had been discussed for months by pro-Moscow authorities, but Ukraine’s recent victories prompted a scramble by officials to schedule them.
With Putin also announcing this week a military draft to enlist 300,000 troops to fight in Ukraine, Moscow appears to be trying to regain the upper hand in the conflict.
Russia has claimed that the referendums were an opportunity for people in the region to express their view.
“From the very start of the operation … we said that the peoples of the respective territories should decide their fate, and the whole current situation confirms that they want to be masters of their fate,” Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said earlier this week.
Ukraine says Russia intends to frame the referendum results as a sign of popular support, and then use them as a pretext for annexation, similar to its takeover of Crimea in 2014, which the international community has not recognised.
By incorporating the four areas into Russia, Moscow could justify military escalation as necessary to defend its territory. Putin on Wednesday said Russia would “use all the means at our disposal” to protect itself, an apparent reference to nuclear weapons. “This is not a bluff,” he said.
“Encroachment on to Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self-defence,” Dmitry Medvedev, who served as Russian president from 2008 to 2012, said in a post on Telegram on Tuesday. “This is why these referendums are so feared in Kyiv and the West”.
In the voting beginning on Friday, a result in favour of Russia is considered inevitable. The referendum in Crimea in 2014, criticised internationally as rigged, had an official result of 97% in favour of formal annexation.
“If this is all declared Russia territory, they can declare that this is a direct attack on Russia so they can fight without any reservations,” Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai told Ukrainian TV.
The referendums have been denounced by world leaders including US president Joe Biden, UN secretary general António Guterres and French president Emmanuel Macron, as well as international bodies Nato, the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The “sham referenda” are “illegal and illegitimate”, Nato said on Thursday.
The OSCE, which monitors elections, said the outcomes would have no legal force because they do not conform with Ukraine law or international standards and the areas are not secure. There will be no independent observers, and much of the prewar population has fled.
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. Russia does not fully control any of the four regions, with only about 60% of Donetsk region in Russian hands.