Calendar An icon of a desk calendar. Cancel An icon of a circle with a diagonal line across. Caret An icon of a block arrow pointing to the right. Email An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of the Facebook "f" mark. Google An icon of the Google "G" mark. Linked In An icon of the Linked In "in" mark. Logout An icon representing logout. Profile An icon that resembles human head and shoulders. Telephone An icon of a traditional telephone receiver. Tick An icon of a tick mark. Is Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes. Is Not Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes with a diagonal line through it. Pause Icon A two-lined pause icon for stopping interactions. Quote Mark A opening quote mark. Quote Mark A closing quote mark. Arrow An icon of an arrow. Folder An icon of a paper folder. Breaking An icon of an exclamation mark on a circular background. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Caret An icon of a caret arrow. Clock An icon of a clock face. Close An icon of the an X shape. Close Icon An icon used to represent where to interact to collapse or dismiss a component Comment An icon of a speech bubble. Comments An icon of a speech bubble, denoting user comments. Ellipsis An icon of 3 horizontal dots. Envelope An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of a facebook f logo. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Home An icon of a house. Instagram An icon of the Instagram logo. LinkedIn An icon of the LinkedIn logo. Magnifying Glass An icon of a magnifying glass. Search Icon A magnifying glass icon that is used to represent the function of searching. Menu An icon of 3 horizontal lines. Hamburger Menu Icon An icon used to represent a collapsed menu. Next An icon of an arrow pointing to the right. Notice An explanation mark centred inside a circle. Previous An icon of an arrow pointing to the left. Rating An icon of a star. Tag An icon of a tag. Twitter An icon of the Twitter logo. Video Camera An icon of a video camera shape. Speech Bubble Icon A icon displaying a speech bubble WhatsApp An icon of the WhatsApp logo. Information An icon of an information logo. Plus A mathematical 'plus' symbol. Duration An icon indicating Time. Success Tick An icon of a green tick. Success Tick Timeout An icon of a greyed out success tick. Loading Spinner An icon of a loading spinner.

Separatist leaders in four Ukrainian regions plan votes to join Russia

(Efrem Lukatsky/AP)
(Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Russian-controlled regions of eastern and southern Ukraine have announced plans to start voting to become integral parts of Russia.

The concerted and quickening Kremlin-backed efforts to swallow up four regions could set the stage for Moscow to escalate the war against Ukrainian forces successfully battling to wrest back territory.

The announcements of referendums starting on Friday in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and partly Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia regions came after a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin said votes were needed, as Moscow loses ground in the war that began nearly seven months ago.

Former president Dmitry Medvedev said folding regions into Russia itself would make redrawn frontiers “irreversible” and enable Moscow to use “any means” to defend them.

Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba denounced the votes as a sham and tweeted that “Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say”.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said: “We will never recognise this territory as anything other than part of Ukraine,” adding that they reflect Russia’s setbacks on the battlefield.

“These are not the actions of a confident country. These are not acts of strength,” he said.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said: “It is very, very clear that these sham referendums cannot be accepted.”

The votes, in territory Russia already controls, are expected to go Moscow’s way but are unlikely to be recognised by western governments backing Ukraine with military and other support.

Luhansk and Donetsk form much of the Donbas region, which has been gripped by separatist fighting since 2014 and which Mr Putin has set as a primary objective of the Russian invasion.

In Donetsk, separatist leader Denis Pushilin said the “long-suffering people of the Donbas have earned the right to be part of the great country that they always considered their motherland”.

He added that the vote will help “restore historic justice that millions of the Russian people were waiting for”.

Pressure within Russia and from Moscow-backed leaders in Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine for votes to pave their way to becoming Russian increased after a Ukrainian counteroffensive — bolstered by western-supplied weaponry — that is recapturing large areas of Russian-occupied territory.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that there are no prospects for a diplomatic settlement.

Dmitry Peskov
Dmitry Peskov (Planetpix/Alamy/PA)

Mr Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council chaired by Mr Putin, said that votes in separatist regions are important to protect their 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 served as 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 Russia would enshrine the new territories in its 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.”

Russia Election
Dmitry Medvedev (Ekaterina Shtukina/Sputnik Pool Photo/AP)

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 the UK, 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 swiftness 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. Washington-based think tank the Institute for the Study of War said abandoned Russian T-72 tanks are being used by Ukrainian forces seeking to push onward into Russian-occupied Luhansk.

Russia Ukraine War
Emergency workers move the body of a civilian during an exhumation in the retaken area of Izium (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

In the counteroffensive’s wake, 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.