RIGA, LATVIA — Russian officials and their proxies in Ukraine are racing to permanently annex occupied regions in the south of the country, probably by engineering referendums, perhaps as early as September.
In the clearest sign that the referendums will go ahead, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday that Russia had changed the geography in Ukraine, effectively redrawing its borders. He threatened that Moscow would claim even more Ukrainian territory unless the West stopped arming Kyiv.
U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby warned Tuesday that Moscow is preparing “sham” referendums to annex more of Ukraine, moves he called “premeditated, illegal and illegitimate.”
According to the White House, Russia is returning to the 2014 playbook it used when it seized Crimea and fomented separatist uprisings in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Referendums in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk were supposed to whitewash Russia’s actions but were marked by election fraud, pre-marked ballots and intimidation. Few nations recognized them.
Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of the R.Politik political analysis group, said Lavrov’s comments were a first attempt at legitimizing Russia’s annexation plans.
President Vladimir Putin has not yet made the final call on referendums, she said, but she predicted they would be held before the end of the year amid growing pressure from Russia’s “party of war,” the hard-line security chiefs and hawkish politicians who are the war’s main advocates.
“The so-called party of war believes that Russia should annex these territories, that it is part of Russia historically and so it must be returned. For them, it’s inevitable,” she said. She added that Western leaders could not do much to stop Russia, having ruled out military intervention.
Putin has justified the invasion by claiming that eastern Ukraine is historically Russian land and casting himself as a new version of the early-18th-century czar Peter the Great recovering lost territory.
Moscow has mounted an aggressive campaign to absorb and Russify newly occupied regions in recent months, using a combination of terror, state propaganda, handouts and promises to rebuild destroyed areas. Local officials, activists and journalists have been killed, arrested or disappeared, and anti-Russian protests have been crushed.
Moscow has appointed Russian officials to administer regions, and Putin passed a decree ordering that Russian passports be issued to Ukrainian citizens. Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Sergei Kiriyenko, and the head of the president’s United Russia party, Andrei Turchak, along with other government ministers and prominent politicians, visit the occupied regions frequently.
On Monday, Kiriyenko narrowly escaped a Ukrainian missile strike when visiting a hydroelectric plant in the Kherson region, according to the pro-Kremlin military journalist Semyon Pegov.
Mikhail Razvozhayev, the governor of Sevastopol in Russian-occupied Crimea, said Friday that the city was helping the Ukrainian city of Melitopol organize a referendum to integrate the Zaporizhzhia region into Russia.
“We have successful experience of working in the liberated territories,” he said in a post on Telegram, referring to areas Russia has taken by military force, saying his officials had been working for months in the Luhansk region. “We will now help Melitopol, too, with the establishment of a peaceful life, with a referendum and with integration.”
Moscow is portraying the referendums as a response to local enthusiasm for joining Russia, not top-down policy — just as Putin’s constitutional change in 2020 that allows him to rule until 2036 was depicted as the inevitable result of a popular upswell.
Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs, and a member of Russia’s negotiating team in previous peace talks with Ukraine, has suggested Sept. 11 as a likely date for referendums.
Lavrov on Wednesday ruled out new peace talks and warned that Russia would not return areas under its control.
“Now the geography is different. It is not only the DPR and LPR,” he said in an interview with state-owned RT, referring to the two separatist regions in the east. “It is also Kherson region, Zaporizhzhia region and a number of other territories, and this process continues, and it continues consistently and persistently,” he added, vowing that Russia would protect areas “that want to determine their destiny independently.”
The Kremlin says Ukrainians in occupied regions should decide their own future, but Russia has a history of electoral fraud under Putin. “Putin would like to hold these referendums only if he is sure that he will obtain something like 90 percent of a pro-Russian vote,” Stanovaya said.
She said he was in no hurry, convinced that he is winning the war and that time is on his side.
But pro-Russian officials set up as puppets in occupied regions are desperate for the regions to be absorbed by Moscow as quickly as possible, worried about Ukraine’s threatened counteroffensive. “For them, it’s a question of security in fact and guarantees for their future,” Stanovaya explained.
On a visit to Kherson in May, Turchak said that “Russia is here forever.” Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov said the same on a trip in June, vowing to implement Russia’s education system in Ukrainian schools, including teaching its version of the nations’ history.
“Preparations for the referendum are underway. Nothing is changing. Plans are not going anywhere. Thousands of people have already received Russian passports. The process is underway,” Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of Russia’s proxy administration in Kherson, told RIA Novosti.
United Russia and senior government officials are spearheading the efforts to absorb the occupied regions, aiming to create an irreversible reality. Russia has introduced its own currency and welfare system, and has torn down place names printed in Ukrainian, replacing them with Russian signs.
Hundreds of teachers are being offered generous pay to move to Russian-controlled areas. Construction teams are being sent in. Officials have set up “help centers,” handing out food and medicines, and offering virtual appointments with Russian doctors.
On Tuesday, United Russia set up a “Center for the Support of Civic Initiatives” in Luhansk, even as Russia clamps down on activists at home. A twin-city initiative has been established, with Russian cities and regions given responsibility for assisting occupied areas of Ukraine devastated in the invasion.
Ukrainian television has been replaced by wall-to-wall anti-Ukrainian propaganda on Russian state television. Pundits on state television routinely deny that Ukraine is a country, call its leaders Nazis or declare that Russia will not stop its attacks until it conquers the entire country.
Prominent Kremlin propagandist Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor in chief, said on state television Tuesday that Russia had to build a future without Ukraine “because Ukraine as it was cannot continue to exist.”
“There will not be the Ukraine that we have known for many years,” she declared triumphantly. “It won’t be Ukraine any longer.”