Kyiv, Ukraine – Russian agency officials in occupied regions of Ukraine on Wednesday appealed to President Vladimir Putin to join Russia, at the start of what is expected to be several days of celebrations and formalities aimed at lending a glimmer of legitimacy to Russia’s annexation plans.
These moves are aimed at ticking the boxes under Russian law and the Russian constitution in a process to claim land in a neighboring country that most of the world considers clearly illegal.
Referendums in occupied areas of Ukraine began hastily last week after Russia suffered setbacks on the battlefield. After five days of staged voting, in which many residents said they were forced to vote by armed soldiers, Russian agency officials in the occupied territories announced the purported results that showed, as expected, overwhelming support for joining Russia.
With results visible in hand, the agents asked the Russian government to incorporate their lands into Russia in informal appeals issued Wednesday morning.
The goal is to declare parts of Ukraine as Russian territory and then confirm that the Ukrainian army is attacking Russia, and not the other way around. Annexation would also provide an excuse to recruit Ukrainian men into the occupied territories and force them to fight other Ukrainians.
The Russian army controls only parts of the four provinces and is losing ground. But if Russia follows the model set for the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin will present local leaders installed by the military as independent actors. In that case, a carefully designed, multi-step process ensued.
Mr. Putin could stop the process at any stage, perhaps to open up prospects for negotiation with the threat of annexation clearly on the table. If he does not, the next step will be petitions from leaders of the Russian Proxy for the approval of both houses of the Russian parliament. There will be few surprises here: Both houses are composed entirely of members loyal to Putin.
In two of the four provinces that have held in recent days offers to vote in referendums to join Russia Donetsk and Luhansk Moscow created client states eight years ago. Emphasizing on the annexation process, on Wednesday the leaders of these entities set out for Moscow, saying that they would speak directly with Mr. Putin.
In two others, Zaporizhzhya and Kherson, puppet leaders on Wednesday declared independence from Ukraine in what they said was a first step toward integration into Russia, a necessary formality that, under Russia’s 1993 constitution, cannot annex areas of a neighboring country without state approval.
Russian news agency TASS reported that Denis Pushlin, leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said he would leave for Moscow with a document signed by members of an electoral commission showing the results for use in the annexation process. The leader of the Luhansk People’s Republic, Leonid Pasnik, was also reported to be on his way to Moscow and posted a video online asking Putin to accept what he called the election results.
In the Kherson region of southern Ukraine, the commander founded by the occupying Russian army last spring, Volodymyr Saldo, publicly appealed to Putin to consider accepting Kherson as part of Russia.
So far, Putin has been timid about his plans. His spokesperson, Dmitry S. Peskov said Putin traveled from the Black Sea resort of Sochi to Moscow on Wednesday, but did not plan any public comment on the referendums.