In the clearest indication that the referendums would go ahead, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that Russia has changed the geography of Ukraine, effectively redrawing its borders. He threatened that Moscow would demand more Ukrainian territory unless the West stopped arming Kyiv.
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby warned Tuesday that Moscow was preparing “sham” referendums to annex more Ukraine, moves he described as “deliberate, illegal and illegitimate.”
According to the White House, Russia goes back to the playbook it used in 2014 when it seized Crimea and sparked separatist uprisings in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Referendums in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk were supposed to exonerate Russia’s actions, but they were marked by election fraud, predetermined ballot papers, and intimidation. Few countries have recognized them.
Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political analysis group R-Politic, said Lavrov’s comments were the first attempt to legitimize Russia’s annexation plans.
She said President Vladimir Putin had not made the last call on the referendums, but she expected them to take place before the end of the year amid mounting pressure from Russia’s “war party” and hard-line security leaders and hard-line politicians who are the main advocates of the war.
The so-called war party believed that Russia should annex these lands, that they are historically part of Russia and therefore should be returned. For them, this is inevitable. She added that Western leaders could do little to stop Russia, having ruled out military intervention.
Putin justified the invasion by claiming That Eastern Ukraine is historically a Russian land and portrays itself as a new version of the early 18th century Tsar Peter the Great regaining lost lands.
Moscow has waged a fierce campaign to assimilate and rationalize the newly occupied territories in recent months, using a mixture of terror, state propaganda, grants and promises to rebuild devastated areas. Local officials, activists, and journalists were killed, arrested, or disappeared, and anti-Russian protests were suppressed.
Moscow appointed Russian officials to administer the regions, and Putin issued a decree ordering the issuance of Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens. Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Sergei Kirienko, and the head of the United Russia party, Andrei Turchak, along with other government ministers and prominent politicians, frequently visit the occupied territories.
Pro-Kremlin military journalist Semyon Pegov reported that Kirienko narrowly escaped on Monday from a Ukrainian missile attack while visiting a hydroelectric power station in the Kherson region.
Mikhail Razvogayev, the governor of Sevastopol in Russia-occupied Crimea, said on Friday that the city is helping the Ukrainian city of Melitopol organize a referendum to incorporate the Zaporizhia region into Russia.
“We have a successful experience working in the liberated lands,” he said in a post on Telegram, referring to the regions captured by Russia by military force, saying that his officials had been working for months in the Luhansk region. “We will now help Melitopol, too, to establish a peaceful life, through referendum and integration.”
Moscow portrays the referendums as a reaction to domestic enthusiasm for joining Russia, not a top-down policy — just as Putin’s constitutional change in 2020 that allowed him to rule until 2036 has been portrayed as the inevitable outcome of a popular revival.
Leonid Slutsky, Chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs and a member of the Russian negotiating team in previous peace talks with Ukraine, suggested September 11 as a possible date for the 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 DPRK and the LPR,” he said in an interview with the state-owned RT channel, referring to the two separatist regions in the east. He added: “It is also the Kherson region, the Zaporizhia region and a number of other regions, and this process continues. , and communicates constantly and continuously,” and vowed that Russia would protect regions “that it wants to determine its fate independently.”
The Kremlin says Ukrainians in the occupied territories should decide their own future, but Russia has a history of electoral fraud under Putin. “Putin does not want to hold these referendums unless he is sure that he will get nearly 90 percent of the pro-Russian vote,” Stanovaya said.
She said that he was in no hurry, convinced that he was winning the war and that time was on his side.
But pro-Russian officials installed as puppets of the occupied territories desperately need Moscow’s absorption of these areas as quickly as possible, worried about the threat of Ukraine’s counterattack. “For them, it’s actually a question of security and guarantees for their future,” Stanovaya explained.
On a visit to Kherson in May, Torchak said that “Russia is here forever.” Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov said the same on a trip in June, pledging to implement the Russian education system in Ukrainian schools, including teaching its copy From the history of nations.
Preparations are underway for the referendum. Nothing changes. The plans are not going anywhere. Thousands of people have already obtained Russian passports. “The process is under way,” Kirill Strimosov, acting deputy head of the Russia administration in Kherson, told RIA Novosti.
The United Russia party and senior government officials are leading the efforts to absorb the occupied territories, with the aim of creating an irreversible reality. Russia introduced its own currency and welfare system, demolishing place names printed in Ukrainian and replacing them with Russian signs.
Hundreds of teachers are being offered generous salaries to move to Russian-controlled areas. Construction teams are sent. Officials have set up “help centers,” distributed food and medicine, and offered virtual appointments with Russian doctors.
On Tuesday, United Russia set up a “Civil Initiatives Support Center” in Luhansk, even as Russia puts pressure on activists at home. The Double City Initiative was created, with Russian cities and regions given the responsibility of helping the occupied regions of Ukraine devastated in the invasion.
Ukrainian television has been replaced by wall-to-wall anti-Ukrainian propaganda on Russian state television. Critics 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 invades the entire country.
Margarita Simonyan, a prominent Kremlin preacher and editor-in-chief of RT, said on state television on Tuesday that Russia must build a future without Ukraine “because Ukraine as it was cannot continue to exist”.
“There will never be the Ukraine we have known for so many years,” she declared triumphantly. “It will not be Ukraine anymore.”
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