Russia triggers plan to formally annex occupied Ukrainian regions

Two Russian-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine announced plans to hold referendums on joining Russia later this week and an ally of President Vladimir Putin has said the votes will alter the geopolitical landscape in favour of Moscow’s for good.

The move, which seriously has escalated the Kremlin’s standoff with the West, comes after Russia suffered a battlefield reversal in northeast Ukraine and as the country’s strongman Vladimir Putin ponders his next steps in this nearly seven-month conflict that has caused the most significant East-West rift since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Russian-backed, self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and the neighbouring Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) announced the planned referendums to be held between September 23 and 27.

“I ask you, as soon as possible… to consider the DPR becoming a part of Russia,” DPR head Denis Pushilin wrote on social media in his post addressed to Vladimir Putin.

Ukraine and the United States have said referendums of this kind would be an illegal sham and have made clear that they and many other countries will not recognise the results. Dmitry Medvedev, former Russian president who is currently deputy chairman of the Security Council, suggested prior to the announcements that the outcome of this kind of voting would be irreversible and give Moscow - holding the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world - a carte blanche to be defending what it would regard then as legally its own territory.

“Encroachment onto Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self–defence,” he wrote in a post on Telegram. “This is why these referendums are so feared in Kyiv and the West.”

No future Russian leader would be able to constitutionally reverse their outcome, he added. Vyacheslav Volodin, the head of Russia's State Duma, the lower house of parliament, said that his chamber would support the two regions joining Russia if they voted to do so.

It is unclear how the referendums would be held given that Russian and Russian-backed forces control only up to 60 percent of the Donetsk region, while Ukrainian forces are trying to take back Luhansk.

Kherson, Zaporizhzhia referendums announced

Russian-installed officials in the Kherson region of Ukraine said they have decided to hold a referendum on joining Russia later this week and have urged the Kremlin to give the green light as soon as possible, the separatist head of the region reported.

In a post on the Telegram messaging app, Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-appointed head of the region, said he hoped Kherson would become “a part of Russia, a fully-fledged subject of a united country.” Later on Tuesday, Russian news agencies reported the vote would take place between September 23 and 27, in line with similar voting lined up for the LPR and DPR.

Russian forces control around 95 percent of Ukraine’s Kherson territory in the south of the country.

The Russian-controlled part of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region will also be holding a referendum on joining Russia, according to a Russian news agency.