The Daily Telegraph

Putin set to declare occupied land part of Russia

Desperate Putin attempts to escalate war with mass mobilisati­on of troops and annexation of territory

- By Nataliya Vasilyeva, Nick Allen and Daniel Martin

RUSSIA yesterday paved the way for the formal annexation of large parts of Ukraine in a major escalation of the Kremlin’s war with Kyiv.

Pro-moscow leaders in occupied areas of four Ukrainian regions, amounting to 15 per cent of the country’s territory, announced plans for referendum­s later this week that would lead to annexation.

Vladimir Putin was last night due to address the Russian nation but his broadcast was postponed until today.

The Kremlin earlier warned it would defend any annexed territory by “all means”, raising the prospect it could deploy nuclear weapons in response to Western-backed Ukrainian efforts to reclaim the land.

There was a chorus of condemnati­on from world leaders at the UN General Assembly in New York, who declared the referendum­s a “sham”.

Liz Truss, the Prime Minister, said Russia needed to pay reparation­s from its “vast oil and gas reserves” to Ukraine when the conflict is over.

Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, said the referendum­s were not covered by internatio­nal law, while Emmanuel Macron, the French president, called them “a tragic parody”.

Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, added: “The United States will never recognise Russia’s claims to any purportedl­y annexed parts of Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, Russia’s parliament rushed through a bill introducin­g stricter punishment­s for desertion, refusal to fight and disobeying orders in time of martial law.

That was a clear signal that the Kremlin is considerin­g a general mobilisati­on of its forces. Doing so would allow Moscow to greatly expand conscripti­on and put manufactur­ing on a war footing. The developmen­ts followed a hugely successful Ukrainian counter-offensive to retake land. The referendum plans were announced in the Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzh­ia and Kherson regions. While Russian forces control Luhansk and most of Kherson, Ukraine has around 40 per cent of both Donetsk and Zaporizhzh­ia.

Votes will be held between Friday and next Tuesday and will almost certainly be in favour of joining Russia. Polls released on social media showed support for joining Russia at between 80 and 91 per cent. Russia staged a similar referendum in Crimea eight years ago before declaring its annexation.

Ukraine dismissed the referendum­s as an attempt by Moscow to reclaim the initiative after its crushing losses on the battlefiel­d. Volodymyr Zelensky said: “The occupiers are clearly in a panic.”

Kremlin figures indicated the expected annexation­s would heighten the prospect of Nato being drawn into the conflict if it did not accept Russian territoria­l gains.

Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s security council, said: “Encroachme­nt on to Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self–defence.

“This is why these referendum­s are so feared in Kyiv and the West. They would completely change the vector of Russia’s developmen­t for decades. And not just of our country. The geopolitic­al transforma­tion of the world would be irreversib­le once the new territorie­s were incorporat­ed into Russia.”

Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russia analyst at R.politik, said: “[This] is an absolutely clear ultimatum from Russia to Ukraine and the West – either Ukraine retreats or there will be a nuclear war.”

SEVEN months after the invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is poised to push through measures that will escalate the war at a time when the Kremlin is losing.

The prospect of the Russian president ordering nuclear strikes is closer now than ever. A cold chill has descended as winter approaches.

Mr Putin was due last night to make a televised address to the nation outlining a new strategy. But the speech was mysterious­ly postponed until today, after a chorus of condemnati­on at the UN General Assembly, where the main topic was defeating Mr Putin in Ukraine.

The Kremlin is planning two changes in policy that run in parallel. New laws passed yesterday pave the way for mass mobilisati­on. At the same time, the occupied regions of Ukraine, including in Luhansk and Donetsk, will hold referendum­s on “unificatio­n” with Russia.

The upshot of those sham votes, due to take place between this Friday and next Tuesday, will be to make those regions Russian sovereign territory. Should Ukraine then continue its push to reclaim its land, Moscow would insist that the Russian nation is under attack. That would give Mr Putin the excuse to launch tactical nuclear weapons.

What Ukraine and the West will have to weigh up the seriousnes­s of the threat. Is Mr Putin likely to carry out an attack that would risk turning Ukraine, the breadbaske­t of Europe, into a nuclear wasteland? What would be the point in Moscow trying to occupy Ukraine, if only to obliterate it?

Before Mr Putin’s speech, the Duma passed amendments to Russia’s criminal code that in effect lay down the legal foundation­s for mass mobilisati­on – like a Vietnam-style war draft. At the start of the war, the Kremlin had amassed 200,000 troops on Ukraine’s border. But Moscow has suffered heavy losses – estimates suggest as many as 80,000 troops have been killed or wounded.

The new rules include stricter punishment for desertion and refusal to fight during martial law. They also identify looting and “voluntary surrender” as separate crimes punishable by 15 and 10 years in prison, respective­ly.

The second major initiative is for the referendum­s in eastern and southern Ukraine run by pro-kremlin puppet regimes. With Kyiv reclaiming territory at a rapid rate, the act of making the occupied land formally part of Russia will cause alarm in the West.

The Kremlin last month scrapped similar votes in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kherson as Ukraine reclaimed vast tracts of land. But there is a renewed urgency to ensure the votes go ahead.

Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former president, who has emerged as a cheerleade­r for the war effort, said Moscow should go ahead with the annexation to present the world with a new reality that no future leader can change.

“The geopolitic­al transforma­tion in the world will be irreversib­le once the referendum­s are held and the new territorie­s join Russia,” he said.

The move comes with a chilling warning that Moscow will use “all means” to defend itself. The two measures together, said Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst, amount to “an absolutely unequivoca­l ultimatum to Ukraine and the West: either Ukraine retreats, or it is nuclear war”.

The nuclear sabre has been rattled before in this conflict, especially on Russian state television – and setting out a path to escalation as a threat is a long way from carrying it out. Ms Stanovaya argued the announceme­nts were a way to get the enemy’s attention. Mr Putin, she says, wants Kyiv to give up.

Sir Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, is not convinced the threat of a nuclear strike will deter the West from backing Ukraine. “The prospect of nuclear use might engender panic in Ukraine and Nato,” he posted on Twitter. “It is also hard to imagine that the news would be greeted calmly in Russia. It could intensify opposition in Moscow to Putin. He would need a compliant chain of command.”

It seems likely that Nato will not back down. Jens Stoltenber­g, the secretary general, said on Twitter: “Sham referendum­s have no legitimacy and do not change the nature of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. This is a further escalation in Putin’s war. The internatio­nal community must condemn this blatant violation of internatio­nal law and step up support for Ukraine.”

‘It is an unequivoca­l ultimatum to Kyiv and the West: either Ukraine retreats, or it is nuclear war’

 ?? ?? Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, chairing a meeting with military and industrial leaders at the Kremlin yesterday
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, chairing a meeting with military and industrial leaders at the Kremlin yesterday
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