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Russia Moves to Cement Grip on Occupied Ukraine, Ups Stakes

(Bloomberg) — The Kremlin is moving hastily to stage sham votes on annexing the regions of Ukraine its forces still control, after Kyiv’s military drove Russian troops from large areas of territory taken in their seven-month-old invasion.

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The so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, as well as the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, announced they’ll hold their votes between Sept. 23-27. Ukraine and its allies have denounced the referendums as illegal and few countries are likely to recognize the results.

In Moscow, officials said they’d grant the regions’ requests to be annexed if they made them. Former President Dmitry Medvedev, who’s now deputy head of the Security Council, said the annexation would be “irreversible” and enable Russia to use “all possible force in self-defense” in the newly-acquired territory.

The move threatens to escalate the bloody conflict even further, potentially giving President Vladimir Putin the formal legal basis to use nuclear weapons to defend what Moscow would consider Russian territory. Annexation, even though it’s sure to be rejected internationally, would likely torpedo any future peace talks, as Russia has said it won’t cede territory it considers its own while Kyiv has refused to give up any land taken by Moscow.

‘Ultimatum’ to Kyiv

With Ukrainian forces continuing their advance across several fronts, the Russian president made the decision overnight to go ahead with the votes, which had been on hold amid the deteriorating security situation, according to people familiar with the discussions, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential matters. Putin may make a public statement on the plans later Tuesday, Russia’s RBC news website reported.

It’s “very, very clear these sham referenda cannot be accepted, that they are not backed by international law,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told reporters in New York, reiterating that Russia must withdraw its troops. “It’s all just an effort at enforcing imperialistic aggression.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said the proposed votes were “a provocation.”

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan called them “an affront to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity that underpin the international system.” He told reporters, “Russia is rushing to hold these referenda in response to Ukraine’s gains on the battlefield, as well as to prepare for potential mobilization measures.”

The Russian leader is laying down another ultimatum to Kyiv and its US and European allies with the implicit threat of nuclear escalation, said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the R.Politik research group.

“The ‘annexation’ will give Putin the legal pretext that he needs to threaten the use of nuclear weapons for the ‘protection of Russian territory,” she said on Twitter, noting that the threat of using the weapons would be aimed at forcing Ukraine to capitulate before Russia actually fired them.

Russian officials have hinted at possible use of nuclear weapons in the conflict before. Actually firing them would risk a direct conflict with the US and other nuclear-armed powers, something both sides have sought to avoid.

US President Joe Biden over the weekend said any use by Russia of chemical or tactical nuclear weapons would draw a “consequential” response. “They’ll become more of a pariah in the world than they ever have been,” he told 60 Minutes. “And depending on the extent of what they do will determine what response would occur.”

Russia’s MOEX stock index slumped as much as 11%, the most since the invasion started on Feb. 24, the worst performance globally on Tuesday, before recovering somewhat.

Russian Stocks Tumble Most Since Invasion Amid Annexation Plans

Ukrainian officials dismissed the annexation moves as illegitimate, vowing to press ahead with their offensive to drive Russian troops out of the country. “The enemy is afraid,” Andriy Yermak, head of the presidential office said in Telegram. “The threat can be liquidated only with force.”

Annexation would help the Kremlin reassure supporters there worried by its hurried retreat from other territories in the face of the Ukrainian advance in the last few weeks.

“We’re absolutely certain of the results of the referendum and determined to carry it out as soon as possible,” Denis Pushilin, Russian-backed head of the Donetsk separatist republic, said on his Telegram channel as he made a televised appeal to Putin to accept the region as soon as possible.

By making the occupied zones formally part of Russia under the country’s laws, the votes may also allow the Kremlin to deploy conscript troops there, in addition to the current force of contract soldiers and military contractors. The Kremlin so far has avoided full mobilization, aiming to limit the impact of the war on the broader population.

But with the annexation referendums, Russia is “moving at full speed to create the legal basis for partial mobilization,” said Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence colonel who became a commander of the Moscow-backed separatist forces in Donbas in 2014. Russia’s parliament also rushed through amendments Tuesday to stiffen penalties for surrender, desertion and other breaches of duties in an apparent effort to boost discipline in the ranks.

Why Ukraine’s Donbas Region Matters to Putin: QuickTake

The use of relatively inexperienced draftees to bolster Russia’s overstretched forces isn’t likely to have a major impact, said Samuel Cranny-Evans, an analyst from the Royal United Services Institute in London.

“For Russia, enlisting conscripts to fight in Ukraine would help to alleviate one of its problems; manpower,” Cranny-Evans said. However, the Russian army would face “significant” problems in training the recruits, he said.

The sudden moves to hold the votes in areas where fighting is still widespread and Russian forces control only part of the regions planned for annexation underlines the Kremlin’s desperation to find a way to counter Ukraine’s sudden battlefield successes. Moscow had originally planned to hold the votes earlier this month, but put those plans on hold as Ukrainian counterattacks threatened to push its troops back.

Authorities in the occupied zones are struggling to ensure basic services and security and tens of thousands of residents have been displaced, making organizing a true plebiscite all but impossible. Occupation officials said they may use online voting, a technique that has been widely seen as a tool for fraud in Russian elections.

So far this month, Ukraine’s military has retaken about 10% of the land held by Russia, routing Moscow’s forces in the Kharkiv region in the northeast and pushing on the Kherson area in the south. These have been the biggest setbacks for Russia since it pulled troops back from around Kyiv in the spring and led many observers to suggest the tide may be turning in the war.

Ukraine detained hundreds of people for collaborating with the occupation authorities after the Russian retreat and has threatened them with long prison terms.

Russian military bloggers and influential pro-Kremlin figures have been urging Putin to massively expand the scale of the struggling offensive in Ukraine, which the Kremlin continues to call a “special military operation.” Otherwise, Russia risks more reverses faced with a much larger Ukrainian force that’s getting billions of dollars of advanced Western weaponry, they’ve warned.

Putin last week vowed to pursue the attack on Ukraine despite the severe losses, saying he’s not “in a hurry” and is ready to step up attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure.

(Updates with Macron comment in 7th paragraph.)

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