Moscow (CNSNews.com) – Four Ukrainian regions controlled by Russian forces unveiled plans to hold referendums on joining Russia later this week, a move that could serve as a precursor for the Kremlin ramping up its military effort in Ukraine.
The Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” pro-Russian breakaway provinces in eastern Ukraine, announced on Tuesday that they would hold referendums on joining Russia between September 23 and 27.
Moscow-installed officials in the southern Kherson and Zaporozhia provinces, which were captured by Russian forces during the early stages of the conflict, announced that they too would hold referendums during the same time period.
Ukraine and its Western allies have denounced the planned referendums as a “sham” and said that they would not recognize the results as legitimate. During a U.S. Senate hearing on Tuesday, a Justice Department sanctions official asked Congress to legalize the transfer of Russia’s frozen financial assets to Ukraine if the referendums went ahead.
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of the Kremlin’s security council, wrote on Telegram that incorporation of the territories would become “irreversible.” He warned that Russia would be prepared to “use all means of self defense” to prevent Ukrainian forces from retaking them.
“The referendums are a legal formality, but this formality is of strategic importance since it frees up our hands for a wider use of the forces and means that our country has at its disposal,” war correspondent Alexander Kot wrote in an article for the pro-Kremlin Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.
“According to our military doctrine, we even have the right to use nuclear weapons if Russia's sovereignty is threatened,” he added.
The referendum announcement comes after a surprise Ukrainian counteroffensive in the northeastern Kharkiv province earlier this month that saw Kyiv’s forces recapture more than 3,000 square kilometers of territory in the region and break through to the Russian border.
A Moscow-installed official in the Kharkiv province later told state media that Russian troops pulled back because the advancing Ukrainian troops outnumbered them by a ratio of eight to one.
Following the withdrawal from Kharkiv, Russian politicians and military bloggers begun to publicly urge the Kremlin to bolster its troop number in Ukraine.
Under Russian law, conscripts cannot be deployed beyond Russia’s borders. The upcoming referendums to incorporate Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporozhia would pave the way for Russia to deploy conscripts to these territories, in turn freeing up contract troops for frontline combat.
There are also signs that the Kremlin could be readying to declare a partial or general mobilization, which would allow the government to draw upon its two million reservists and put the nation’s economy on wartime footing.
On Tuesday, lawmakers in the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, passed legislation to introduce the concepts of “mobilization, martial law, and wartime” into the country’s criminal code.
The new amendments introduced jail terms of up to 15 years for soldiers and reservists who desert their units, voluntarily surrender to enemy forces, fail to report for military duty, or otherwise disobey orders from superiors.
The bill will come into effect once it is approved by the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.
State Duma lawmakers also voted to provide foreign citizens that served at least one year in the Russian armed forces with a simplified path to Russian citizenship. Shortly after the legislation was adopted, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced that the defense ministry would open a recruitment center for foreign citizens at the capital’s largest migration complex.
During a meeting with representatives of Russia’s military-industrial complex on Tuesday, Putin called on arms manufacturers to increase production capabilities “in the shortest possible time” and to urgently deliver additional weapons and equipment to Russian troops fighting in Ukraine.