A Ukrainian service member stands at a German self-propelled gun Panzerhaubitze 2000 at the frontline in Donetsk region

Separatist-controlled areas in Ukraine to vote on joining Russia

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian-controlled regions of eastern and southern Ukraine announced plans Tuesday to start voting this week 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.

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The announcements of referendums starting 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.

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

Luhansk and Donetsk together form much of the Donbas region, which has been gripped by separatist fighting since 2014 and which 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 in the wake of a Ukrainian counteroffensive — bolstered by Western-supplied weaponry — that is recapturing large areas of previously Russian-occupied territory.

In another signal that Russia is digging in for a protracted and possibly ramped-up conflict, the Kremlin-controlled lower of house of parliament voted Tuesday to toughen laws against desertion, surrender and looting by Russian soldiers. Lawmakers also voted to introduce possible 10-year prison terms for soldiers refusing to fight. If approved, as expected, by the upper house and then signed by Putin, the legislation would strengthen commanders’ hands against failing morale reported among soldiers.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that there are no prospects for a diplomatic settlement. Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council chaired by Putin, said on his messaging app channel 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 Medvedev, who served as Russia’s president from 2008-2012.

“An encroachment on the territory of Russia is a crime that would warrant any means of self-defense,” 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,” Medvedev said. “That is why they must be held.”

The recapturing of large areas of previously Russian-occupied territory, most notably in the northeastern Kharkiv region, has strengthened Ukraine’s arguments that its troops could deliver more stinging defeats to Russia with additional armament deliveries.

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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 United States. British Prime Minister Liz Truss is expected to promise that in 2023, her government will “match or exceed” the 2.3 billion pounds ($2.7 billion) in military aid given to Ukraine this year.

The swiftness of the Ukrainian counteroffensive also saw Russian forces abandon armored 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 Tuesday that abandoned Russian T-72 tanks are being used by Ukrainian forces seeking to push onward into Russian-occupied Luhansk.

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 also have 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 Tuesday its troops sank a Russian barge carrying troops and weapons across the Dnipro River near the Russian-occupied city of Nova Kakhovka. It offered no other details on the sinking of the barge in the Russian-occupied Kherson region, which has been a major target in the Ukrainian counteroffensive.

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