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Russia poised to annex regions of Ukraine with credit to disputed vote

Just as it annexed Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin is expected to do the same in occupied regions of Ukraine where referendums drew suspiciously landslide results.

(CN) — Russia is about to take a major gamble and declare the annexation of territories its troops occupy in Ukraine, perhaps as early as Friday when Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to make a speech to parliament.

The move is expected after Russian media and officials on Wednesday celebrated the results of disputed referendums in four Ukrainian regions mostly under Russian control, where residents were asked to vote on joining the Russian Federation.

The referendums, deemed a sham by Western powers and the United Nations, found nearly all respondents wanting to join Russia, a ridiculous outcome even though many people in those parts of Ukraine are ethnic Russians and Russian speakers. Ukrainians, though, are very numerous and outnumber Russian speakers in many areas being annexed.

“The results are clear. Welcome home to Russia!” Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president and deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, said on social media.

Putin and his regime claim they are annexing the regions to protect Russian populations from Ukrainian persecution and attacks. Also, Putin has justified his actions by arguing that eastern Ukraine historically was part of the Russian Empire, an area known as Novorossiya or New Russia.

The West says Putin’s invasion is an imperialistic land grab that must be stopped. Following the overthrow of a democratically elected but corrupt pro-Russian Ukrainian president who scrapped a deal to bring Ukraine into closer ties with the European Union, Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 using a similar referendum. Crimea is populated by a majority of ethnic Russians and historically was part of Russia before it was transferred in 1954 to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine.           

Russia’s attempt to annex the regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia is causing outrage in the West and Kyiv.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. and its allies would never recognize Russia’s land grab.

“We and many other countries have already been crystal clear. We will not — indeed, we will never — recognize the annexation of Ukrainian territory by Russia,” Blinken told reporters Tuesday.

“It’s important to remember what’s going on here. Russia invaded Ukraine, seized territory, and is engaged in a diabolical scheme on some of the territory it seized where it has moved the local populace out,” he said.

He said the U.S. “will impose additional swift and severe costs on Russia” for carrying out the referendums. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen echoed his statements and said a new round of sanctions will be proposed “to make the Kremlin pay.”

Tensions between Russia and the West are reaching an even higher level of animosity not only because of the referendums but because of mutual accusations of sabotage that apparently caused major damage to the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, two controversial gas lines across the Baltic Sea linking Russia to Germany.

Swedish seismologists said Tuesday they recorded explosions presumably linked to damage that caused leaks from the pipelines. The Kremlin denied responsibility for any attack and Russians instead accused the United States. Western officials pointed the finger at Moscow.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said claims that Russia sabotaged its own pipelines were “predictably stupid.” Gazprom, the Russian state gas giant, built the pipelines with the help of European firms.

Swedish, Danish and German officials have begun investigating the suspected attacks on the pipelines. There are concerns that the pipelines may become unusable if they are not fixed quickly because salt water could cause corrosion.

The attack on the Nord Stream pipelines and fears that Russia may cut off gas flows through Ukraine are causing gas prices to spike even higher.

Fighting in Ukraine meanwhile continues to rage, though the front lines have not significantly changed since Kyiv, backed by NATO intelligence and weapons, launched a successful counteroffensive that pushed Russian troops out of the Kharkiv region in the first half of September.

The counteroffensive was a major defeat for the Kremlin, but Putin responded with more aggressive moves. Russian rockets struck Ukrainian power plants and other infrastructure; the process to hold referendums was sped up; and Putin ordered the mobilization of 300,000 Russian reservists.

The war in Ukraine has been raging for 217 days and has now entered its eighth month. With the weather turning wetter and colder in Ukraine, the war is entering a new phase that may prove difficult for both sides as troops slog it out in tough wintry conditions.

Also, the arrival of autumn and approach of winter may spark a rise in discontent in the European Union, where businesses and households are struggling with high prices for gas and electricity. At the same time, the global economy is teetering on the brink of a recession that would only make matters worse.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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