The Kremlin has said there are no prospects for a negotiated end to the war in Ukraine and gave its blessing to efforts to swiftly bring regions already captured under Russia’s complete control.
Such a move could set the stage for Moscow to escalate the conflict if Ukrainian forces try to take the regions back.
A close ally of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, former president Dmitry Medvedev, said that folding the separatist Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine into Russia itself would make their redrawn frontiers “irreversible” and enable Moscow to use “any means” to defend them.
Pressure within Russia and from Moscow-backed leaders in Luhansk and Donetsk for regional votes that would pave their way to becoming fully Russian has increased after a Ukrainian counteroffensive — bolstered by western-supplied weaponry — that is wresting back large areas of previously Russian-occupied territory.
Moscow-backed leaders in the Russian-occupied Kherson region of southern Ukraine and pro-Russia activists in the partly-occupied Zaporizhzhia region on Tuesday joined earlier calls from separatist authorities in Luhansk and Donetsk for speedy referendums on joining Russia.
Such votes would almost certainly go Moscow’s way. The succession of appeals and Mr Medvedev’s backing for them suggested stiffening determination in the Kremlin to fend off further territorial gains by Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that there are no prospects for a diplomatic settlement.
Mr Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council chaired by Mr Putin, said votes in separatist regions are important to protect the residents and “restore historic justice” and would “completely change” Russia’s future trajectory.
“After they are held and the new territories are taken into Russia’s fold, a geopolitical transformation of the world will become irreversible,” said Mr Medvedev, who was Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012.
“An encroachment on the territory of Russia is a crime that would warrant any means of self-defence,” he said, adding that Moscow would enshrine the new territories in the constitution so no future Russian leader could hand them back.
“That is why they fear those referendums so much in Kyiv and in the West,” Mr Medvedev said. “That is why they must be held.”
The recapturing of large areas of previously Russian-occupied territory, most notably in the north-eastern Kharkiv region, has strengthened Ukraine’s arguments that its troops could deliver more stinging defeats to Russia with additional armament deliveries.
More heavy weaponry is on its way, with Slovenia this week promising 28 tanks and Germany pledging four additional self-propelled howitzers.
More aid also is expected from Britain, already one of Ukraine’s biggest military backers after the US. Prime Minister Liz Truss is expected to promise that in 2023, her government will “match or exceed” the £2.3 billion in military aid given to Ukraine this year.
The speed of the Ukrainian counteroffensive also saw Russian forces abandon armoured vehicles and other weapons as they beat hasty retreats. Ukrainian forces are recycling captured weaponry back into battle.
A Washington-based think tank, the Institute for the Study of War, said on Tuesday that abandoned Russian T-72 tanks are being used by Ukrainian forces seeking to push onward into Russian-occupied Luhansk.
Ukrainian officials found hundreds of graves near the once-occupied city of Izium. Yevhenii Yenin, a deputy minister in Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Ministry, told a national telecast that officials found many bodies “with signs of violent death”.
“These are broken ribs and broken heads, men with bound hands, broken jaws and severed genitalia,” he said.
Ukrainian officials have also alleged Russian forces tortured people in occupied areas, including shocking them with radio telephones dating back to the Soviet era.
Russia has repeatedly denied abusing or killing prisoners, though Ukrainian officials found mass graves around the city of Bucha after blunting a Russian offensive targeting the capital Kyiv at the start of the war.
Meanwhile, a Ukrainian push continues in the south of the country. Ukraine’s southern military command said early on Tuesday that its troops sank a Russian barge carrying troops and weapons across the Dnipro River near the Russian-occupied city of Nova Kakhovka.
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