During his speech Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin backed proposed referendums in several Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine.
Putin said Russia had been asked to support referendums by the two “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as by the regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, and had pledged to do “everything to ensure the safe conditions for people to express their will.”
Some context: Multiple Kremlin-backed authorities in occupied areas of eastern and southern Ukraine have announced they will hold referendums on formally joining Russia this week, in a move that threatens to redefine the parameters of the conflict.
In what appeared to be a coordinated announcement, Russian-appointed leaders in the occupied regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia and the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic all said they planned to hold “votes” beginning on September 23.
Together the four regions that have announced their referendum plans make up around 18% of Ukraine’s territory. Russia does not control any of the four in their entirety.
The referendums could pave the way for Russian annexation of the areas, allowing Moscow to frame the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive there as an attack on Russia itself, thereby providing Moscow with a pretext to escalate its military response.
The latest developments follow a significant shift in Russia’s position after a sudden and successful Ukrainian offensive through most of occupied Kharkiv this month, which has galvanized Ukraine’s Western backers and led to recriminations in Moscow.