Russia has paved the way for the formal annexation of swathes of Ukrainian territory, backing referendum plans in areas of Ukraine its soldiers control in a direct challenge to the West that could sharply escalate the conflict.
After nearly seven months of war, including a critical battlefield defeat in northeastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been pondering his next move.
And the Kremlin revealed its hand overnight with the bold plan drawing a swift condemnation from western nations.
In what appeared to be choreographed requests, Russian-backed officials across 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory – an area about the size of Hungary or Portugal – lined up to request referendums on joining Russia.
The self-styled Donetsk (DPR) and the Luhansk People's Republics (LPR), which Putin recognised as independent just before the invasion, and Russian-installed officials in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions have asked for votes over less than 24 hours.
Luhansk, Donetsk and Kherson officials said the referendums would take place in just days - on Friday September 23 through to Monday September 27. Russia does not fully control any of the four regions, with only around 60 per cent of Donetsk region in Russian hands.
If Moscow formally annexed a vast additional chunk of Ukraine, Putin would essentially be daring the United States and its European allies to risk a direct military confrontation with Russia, the world's biggest nuclear power.
Asked about the referendums, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did not mince his words.
"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."
World leaders react to Russia's bold plan
Responding to questions posed to him at the United Nations, Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba rubbished the notion of Russia's formal annexation via referendum, saying Ukraine will continue to fight and liberate its territory.
"The Russians can do whatever they want. It will not change anything," he said.
In a later tweet, he added: "Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say."
United States 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 described the planned votes as "a parody".
Speaking to Reuters, Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the political analysis firm R.Politik, said
"All this talk about immediate referendums is an absolutely unequivocal ultimatum from Russia to Ukraine and the West," she said.
US President Joe Biden warned in March that a direct confrontation between the NATO military alliance and Russia would mean World War III. Biden and NATO leaders have been careful to say that they do not want NATO troops in direct conflict with Russian troops.
Russia's nuclear doctrine allows the use of such weapons if weapons of mass destruction are used against it or if or if the Russian state faces an existential threat from conventional weapons.
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