Live news: Occupied regions in Ukraine plan referendums on joining Russia

Russian lawmakers have passed a bill that will criminalise desertion and other acts “during a period of martial law, armed conflict, or mobilisation”, a move that has raised concerns Moscow could soon declare outright war against Ukraine.

So far, Russia has termed its seven-month long invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation” rather than a war. It has conducted its assault using contract soldiers and mercenaries, without officially deploying the conscript army or mobilising the wider population for war.

The bill, which passed its third reading in the Duma lower house of parliament on Tuesday, introduces changes to the criminal code that make it possible for authorities to punish acts such as desertion if conducted during an ambiguous “wartime” or “mobilisation” period, rather than following a clear declaration of war.

Evading conscription and desertion during such a time will now carry a jail sentence of between five and 10 years. Similar sentences are introduced for failing to comply with a commander’s orders, marauding, and intentionally destroying military equipment.

Some Russian politicians said these changes to the criminal code do not equate to mobilisation itself.

“Mobilisation has not been announced,” the state Interfax news agency cited one of the authors of the bill as saying.

However, other politicians said the concept of a “mobilisation period” had now been introduced into the legal system, and could be viewed as a signal that a full-blown declaration of war and mass mobilisation could be on the horizon.

“The Duma has just considered and adopted in their final form several changes to the criminal code, at breakneck speed,” wrote high-profile lawyer Ivan Pavlov, who has previously defended opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

“Most likely, there will soon be a big announcement . . . [and] we will be able to call the war a war,” he continued.

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