Nato has accused Moscow of escalating its war on Ukraine after Kremlin allies in occupied territories announced referendums to join Russia and the country’s parliament approved legislation that clears the way for military mobilisation.
Four Moscow-controlled regions in Ukraine will hold votes this week, a step that the Kremlin has resisted to date and which western powers and Kyiv immediately denounced as a sham.
Russia’s Duma also passed a law on Tuesday to increase penalties for desertion and evasion of conscription in the event of mobilisation, a further sign of Moscow’s hardening stance.
On Tuesday, US secretary of state Antony Blinken called the referendums “the sign of Russian failure”. “If these referenda proceed, and if Russia purports to annex Ukrainian territory, the United States will never, never recognise it,” he said during the UN General Assembly in New York.
Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of Nato, also decried the referendums as “a further escalation” of the war. “Sham referendums have no legitimacy and do not change the nature of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine,” he said.
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s administration has been on the back foot since losing thousands of square kilometres of territory to Ukrainian forces this month, increasing the clamour from pro-war hawks for full-blown annexation and mobilisation.
The referendums will take place between September 23 and 27 and be held on two territories — the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics — ruled by Russian-backed strongmen since they broke away from Kyiv in 2014.
Votes will also be held in Kherson and parts of Zaporizhzhia province, two southern regions Russian forces seized when they invaded Ukraine this year and where Moscow’s grip on power has remained shaky.
Josep Borrell, Brussels’ chief diplomat, said: “The EU strongly condemns the planned illegal ‘referenda’, which go against the legal and democratically elected Ukrainian authorities, are in violation of Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity and in blatant breach of international law.”
“The results of such actions will be null and void and would not be recognised by the EU and its member states,” he added.
The votes follow a 2014 referendum in Crimea on joining Russia that was widely condemned internationally.
Western analysts have suggested annexing further territories could allow Moscow to claim that Nato arms provision to Ukraine amounted to an attack on Russia itself.
“Encroachment on to Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self-defence,” said former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. “This is why these referendums are so feared in Kyiv and the west.”
He added the votes were a “restoration of historical justice” and “will completely change the direction of Russia’s development for decades”.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s administration, called on the international community to respond to the plans “by increasing arms aid and introducing new economic sectoral sanctions against Russia”.
US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Washington would “unequivocally” reject further Russian attempts to annex occupied regions of Ukraine. “We will never recognise this territory as anything other than part of Ukraine,” he added.
Sullivan said the planned referendums, together with reports that Russia may hold a mass mobilisation drive, were signs of Russian weakness. “It is the act of a country that has suffered setbacks — militarily, diplomatically,” he said.
The law passed by the Russian Duma on Tuesday would criminalise desertion and other acts “during a period of martial law, armed conflict, or mobilisation”.
So far, Russia has termed its seven-month long invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation”, rather than a war. It has used contract soldiers and mercenaries, without officially deploying the conscript army or mobilising the wider population for war.
The new legislation makes it possible for authorities to punish acts such as desertion during either a “wartime” or “mobilisation” period, rather than only after a clear declaration of war. Evading conscription and desertion will now carry a jail sentence of between five and 10 years.
The authors of the bill said such changes to the criminal code did not equate to mobilisation itself. “Mobilisation has not been announced,” the state Interfax news agency cited one official as saying.
“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 Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. “Most likely, there will soon be a big announcement . . . [and] we will be able to call the war a war.”
Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in New York