Russia plans to annex Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk with ‘sham’ referenda, U.S. says

U.S. intelligence reports indicate that Russia is planning to hold sham referenda in mid-May in a bid to annex Donetsk and Luhansk, the two regions of eastern Ukraine currently under Russian occupation, the U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Michael Carpenter told reporters at the State Department on Monday.

"According to the most recent reports, we believe that Russia will try to annex the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ and ‘Lugansk People’s Republic’ to Russia. The reports state that Russia plans to engineer referenda upon joining sometime in mid-May. This is straight out of the Kremlin’s playbook" the Ambassador said, adding that Moscow is also considering a similar plan for Kherson, a region in southern Ukraine anchored by a city of the same name.

This would mean dismantling local governments, schools and institutions and then declaring the occupied Kherson region an “independent people’s republic,” before later annexing it.

"We think the reports are highly credible. Unfortunately we have been more right than wrong in exposing what we believe may be coming next, and so that is part of what we’re trying to do here."

Russia recently announced plans to force people in Kherson to switch to the ruble as currency. It has also cut off internet and cell phone access across the region, which is home to more than 1 million people.

“Sham referenda and fabricated votes will not be considered legitimate, nor will any attempts to annex additional Ukrainian territory,” said Carpenter. "But we have to act. We have to act with a sense of urgency."

When asked by TURAN about recent pictures from Kherson of how Russian troops are declaring victory and then installing the statues of Lenin, Carpenter said, he wouldn't speak to the political mythology that Russian forces are trying to impose on democratic Ukraine. "But I think it speaks volumes that we have seen this sort of effort underway. And it jives certainly with the propaganda that we have heard from Moscow."

Washington is exposing Russia’s actions - both at home as well as abroad, including at the OSCE.

"We’re doing it in other multilateral fora. We are standing with Ukraine. We are isolating Russia diplomatically, which is the case at the OSCE. We are working to – overtime and leaving no stone unturned to try to get humanitarian assistance to the populations in need across Ukraine," he added.

Carpenter said it was also possible that Russia’s leaders would try to take over other parts of Ukraine, by imposing “puppets and proxies” in local governments and forcing out democratically elected officials. He said that this had appeared to be Moscow’s initial aim in Kyiv — a plan that included installing a new constitution in Ukraine — but that Russian forces had been forced to drop back to the country’s east and south after they were unable to take the capital.

Early on Monday a senior U.S. Defense Department official told reporters that Russian troops in eastern Ukraine were making “anemic” progress and continue to be beset by low morale, poor command and control and weak logistics,

The Kremlin has made minor gains in the far eastern region of Luhansk and outside the city of Izyum, but overall gains in the region are fleeting, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Instead of holding territory, Russia troops have recently been moving into an area, declaring victory and then leaving the area to Ukrainian troops to resume control, U.S. intelligence indicates.

This creates a fiction for the Russian domestic audience that the military has made significant gains in Ukraine, but does not actually require that Russian troops suppress civilian populations.

Kremlin efforts to control civilian populations elsewhere in Ukraine have resulted in thousands of deaths and scores of likely war crimes committed against the Ukrainian population.

In the meantime, back at the State Department, diplomats believe that there is “good reason" to expect that the Russians will do everything they can to use May 9 for propaganda purposes.

“We've seen the Russians really double down on their propaganda efforts, probably, almost certainly, as a means to distract from their tactical and strategic failures on the battlefield in Ukraine,” spokesperson Ned Price said during a daily briefing.

Price added that he had “seen the speculation that Russia may formally declare war” on May 9, and said, “that would be a great irony if Moscow used the occasion of 'Victory Day' to declare war, which in itself would allow them to surge conscripts in a way they're not able to do now, in a way that would be tantamount to revealing to the world that their war effort is failing, that they are floundering in their military campaign and military objectives."

“I'm quite confident that we'll be hearing more from Moscow in the lead up to May 9,” Price added. “I'm quite confident that you will be hearing more from the United States, from our partners, including our NATO partners, in the lead up to May 9 as well.”

Alex Raufoglu

Washington D.C.


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