Ukraine live briefing: Putin to speak after Russia-backed officials in Ukraine regions call for referendums

A powerful Russian missile exploded near the reactors of the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant on Sept. 19, according to Ukrainian officials. (Video: Volodymyr Zelensky via Storyful)

The Kremlin is expected to release a prerecorded address by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday morning, following calls by Russia-backed officials in Ukraine for referendums to be held beginning Friday that could result in Moscow’s annexation of occupied parts of the country and self-declared separatist “republics.” Ukraine and its allies have condemned the “sham referendums.”

Here’s the latest on the war and its impact across the globe.

Annexation referendums

  • Referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Separatist officials in the two self-declared “republics” have appealed to Moscow in recent days to annex those territories as Ukrainian forces press a counteroffensive. “The long-suffering people of Donbas deserved to be part of the Great Country, which they always considered their Motherland,” Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, wrote in an appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, published on Telegram.
  • The Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson is set to hold a referendum starting Friday to become a part of Russia, its chief, Vladimir Saldo, announced Tuesday. He said joining Russia would help secure the southern Ukrainian region, which Ukrainian forces have sought to wrest from Russian hands. The head of the Russian-appointed occupying administration of the Zaporizhzhia region, Yevgeny Balitsky, said a staged referendum would be held on the same dates in the parts of that region controlled by Russian forces, which includes Enerhodar, where Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant is located.
  • “If this does transpire, the United States will never recognize Russia’s claims to purportedly annexed territory,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters. “Sham referendums have no legitimacy,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter.
  • Kyiv and its allies have condemned such moves. “Sham ‘referendums’ will not change anything,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said. An “illegal ‘referendum’” would not stop Ukrainian forces “from destroying occupiers on our land,” Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, wrote on Twitter. The European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said in a statement that the E.U. “strongly condemns these planned illegal ‘referenda.’”

Battlefield updates

  • Ukrainian forces made small gains in the eastern Luhansk region, which Russia seized almost entirely in recent months, regional governor Serhiy Haidai said. He said troops took control of Bilohorivka near the city of Lysychansk. The Washington Post could not immediately verify the claim.
  • A Russian missile hit 300 yards from reactors at the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant, and a nearby hydropower facility shut down, state company Energoatom said Monday. But the plant’s three power units were still operating, and no workers were injured in the explosion in the Mykolaiv region, the Ukrainian nuclear operator said.
  • Artillery strikes against targets inside Russia have pushed officials in Russian border towns to order hasty evacuations, bringing the impact of the war closer for Russians. While Moscow blamed Ukrainian forces, Kyiv has not claimed responsibility for the attacks within Russian territory.

Global impact

  • President Biden nominated career diplomat Lynne M. Tracy as ambassador to Russia, replacing John Sullivan, who served for nearly three years until he left the job early this month. Tracy, a Russian speaker, has had a long career of assignments in Central and South Asia, and also previously served as the deputy chief of mission in Moscow.
  • The United States and Ukraine signed an agreement aimed at formalizing cooperation over joint efforts to prosecute alleged war crimes committed by Russian troops in the war in Ukraine. Attorney General Merrick Garland said the agreement would build on the work of a war crimes accountability team he announced in June after visiting Ukraine and meeting with local authorities.
  • The Russian State Duma, or lower house of parliament, toughened punishments Tuesday for soldiers deserting, surrendering or refusing to fight, as Russia faces a manpower problem in its war in Ukraine. Deserters who are away from their posts for more than a month could now face a maximum 10-year sentence, up from a maximum five-year term.
  • At the United Nations General Assembly, speakers criticized Moscow. “There are Russian troops in Ukraine and as far as I know there are no Ukrainian troops in Russia. That is a statement of fact,” French President Emmanuel Macron said during an address, later dismissing “fake, pretend referenda in areas that have been bombed” by Russia. Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan said any peace deal needed to be “based on Ukraine’s territorial integrity and independence,” and in an interview with PBS he said that “lands which were invaded will be returned to Ukraine.”
  • Zelensky is set to address the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, after members voted to exempt him from a rule for in-person speeches at this year’s session. Russia and six other countries voted against it. The session started Tuesday. Biden is also set to speak, and will deliver “a firm rebuke of Russia’s unjust war in Ukraine,” Sullivan told reporters Tuesday.

From our correspondents

Russia moves toward annexing Ukraine regions in a major escalation: Moscow’s puppet authorities in occupied regions of Ukraine set dates to stage referendums on joining Russia, or calling for immediate votes — moves that could dramatically escalate the war, Robyn Dixon reports.

Karoun Demirjian, Robyn Dixon, David L. Stern and Adam Taylor contributed to this report.