The Russian-installed head of the occupied part of Ukraine’s Zaporizhia region signed a decree on Monday providing for a referendum on joining Russia, as Moscow moves forward with its plans to annex the Ukrainian region.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has rejected any peace talks Russia If the country goes ahead with a referendum in the occupied territories.
Yevgeny Balitsky, head of the region’s pro-Russian administration, announced the decision to start the process during a pro-Moscow forum titled “We are with Russia” held in Melitopol, the largest Russian-controlled city in Zaporizhia.
“I am signing an order for the Central Election Committee to start preparations for a referendum on the reunification of the Zaporizhia region with the Russian Federation,” Balitsky said.
Russia holds roughly two-thirds of Zaporizhia, part of southern Ukraine seized by Moscow at the start of the war, including the neighboring Kherson region, where Russian officials have also discussed plans to hold a referendum.
Russia-appointed officials in Zaporizhia have previously said the administration plans to move forward with a referendum even if Russia has not taken control of the entire region. The city of Zaporizhia is still under Ukrainian control.
Ukraine and its Western allies have said any referendum held by Russia would be illegal and that the results would be fraudulent. In 2014, Moscow and its proxies held a mass protest referendum in Crimea, just weeks after its forces seized the peninsula.
On Sunday, Zelensky said peace talks with Russia would be impossible if the country went ahead with such views in the occupied territories.
“The condition of our country remains the same. We will not give up what is ours,” Zelensky said in a nightly address to the nation.
“If the occupiers go ahead with the pseudo-referendum, they will close for themselves any opportunity for dialogue with Ukraine and the free world, which the Russian side will clearly need at some point.
Balitsky did not provide further details on the timing of the referendum on Monday. Bloomberg, citing two unnamed sources familiar with Moscow’s strategy, previously reported that the Kremlin was aiming to hold the referendum by September 15.
Kremlin-appointed officials in Kherson and Zaporizhia had already taken a number of measures aimed at bringing the occupied territories closer to Russia and setting the stage for future referendums.
Earlier this summer, Russian merchants began issuing Russian passports to locals in Kherson and Zaporizhia. Moscow has also forced Ukraine Teacher To follow the Russian course in the occupied territories, while in the occupied cities billboards saying “We are with Russia” have sprung up.
In a further signal of Moscow’s intentions, pro-Russian authorities in Kherson and Zaporizhia have established local “election committees” that will be responsible for conducting the referendum.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, President Vladimir Putin initially denied that Moscow was trying to seize new territory.
However, since then he has skyrocketed Statements In which he sought to justify what he portrayed as Russia’s historic quest to win back Russian lands.
Last month, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Moscow had expanded its war aims in Ukraine to Kherson and Zaporizhia.
The Kremlin has also repeatedly indicated that it would approve referendums held in the seized Ukrainian territories, which would give Putin the opportunity to declare the conquered areas as Russian territory.
Ukraine, fueled by Western weapons, is Sworn In the south of the country, there is great resistance.
However, the annexation of Kherson and Zaporizhia could complicate Ukraine’s efforts to retake the territory: if Moscow annexed, those territories would be protected by the country’s nuclear arsenal.
Talking to BBC On Monday, retired British general Sir Richard Barons said a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive in southern regions annexed by Moscow would increase Russia’s chances of using “small nuclear weapons”.
“Ukraine is now going to push into the territory that Russia has declared as Russia, and at that point theoretically and perhaps politically, Russia will start to get its tactical, its small nuclear weapons,” Barons said, adding that those weapons will have a radius. of “about two miles.”
“We have to think through that and not treat this as some kind of wild surprise that is completely unimaginable,” he said.