MOSCOW, Sept 28 (Reuters) – The Russian-installed administrator of Ukraine’s Russian-controlled Kherson region on Wednesday published a request to President Vladimir Putin, asking him to incorporate the region into Russia.
In a letter published on his Telegram account, Vladimir Saldo said that residents of Kherson region had made “a historic choice” in favour of Russia, referring to a Russian-organised referendum that both Ukraine and Western countries said was a sham.
At the same time, the Russian-installed administrator of Ukraine’s Luhansk region said on Wednesday that he had formally asked President Vladimir Putin to incorporate the region into Russia, following a hastily organised referendum that the West has denounced as an illegitimate sham.
“Taking into account the fact that the population of the republic approved the decision in the referendum, I ask you to consider the issue of Luhansk People’s Republic becoming a part of Russia as a subject of the Russian Federation,” separatist leader Leonid Pasechnik said.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said on Wednesday that newly mobilised reservists in the Kaliningrad region have started combat training at the base of Russia’s Baltic Fleet.
“All mobilized military personnel comply with the standards for shooting from small arms. In addition, citizens called up from the reserve restore their skills in the operation and maintenance of weapons, military and special equipment,” the ministry said on its Telegram channel.
Courses have been also held to increase firing skills and prepare military personnel for “confident actions on the battlefield”.
President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s first military mobilisation since World War Two last week, which could see hundreds of thousands more people sent to fight in Ukraine.
Russia has a significant military presence in Kaliningrad, a Russian Baltic coast enclave located between NATO and European Union members Poland and Lithuania, including nuclear-capable missiles, its Baltic fleet and tens of thousands of soldiers.
Russian-installed officials in four occupied regions of Ukraine reported huge majorities of votes in favour of joining Russia as the United States planned a U.N. resolution condemning the referendums as shams and Russia remained defiant.
The United States was also preparing a new round of sanctions against Russia should it annex Ukrainian territory and a $1.1 billion arms package for Ukraine that will be announced soon, U.S. officials said on Tuesday.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said the United States and its allies remained committed to European energy security, after Germany, Sweden and Denmark said attacks caused major leaks from two Russian energy pipelines. It remained far from clear who might be behind the leaks.
Hastily arranged votes took place over five days in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson to the south, that together make up about 15% of Ukrainian territory.
Vote tallies from complete results on Tuesday in the four provinces ranged from 87% to 99.2% in favour of joining Russia, according to Russia-appointed officials. The head of the upper house of the Russian parliament said the chamber might consider annexation on Oct. 4.
“The results are clear. Welcome home, to Russia!,” Dmitry Medvedev, a former president who serves as deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council and an ally of President Vladimir Putin, said on Telegram.
Within the occupied territories, Russian-installed officials took ballot boxes from house to house in what Ukraine and the West said was an illegitimate, coercive exercise to create a legal pretext for Russia to annex the four regions.
“This farce in the occupied territories cannot even be called an imitation of a referendum,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in video address late on Tuesday.
The United States will introduce a resolution at the U.N. Security Council calling on member states not to recognise any change to Ukraine and obligating Russia to withdraw its troops, U.S. envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield said.
“Russia’s sham referenda, if accepted, will open a pandora’s box that we cannot close,” she said at a council meeting.
Russia has the ability to veto a resolution in the Security Council, but Thomas-Greenfield said that would prompt the United States to take the issue to the U.N. General Assembly.
“Any referenda held under these conditions, at the barrel of a gun, can never be remotely close to free or fair,” Britain’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador James Kariuki said.
Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, told the meeting that the referendums were conducted transparently and in line with electoral norms.
“This process is going to continue if Kyiv does not recognise its mistakes and its strategic errors and doesn’t start to be guided by the interests of its own people and not blindly carry out the will of those people who are playing them,” he said.
If Russia annexes the four Ukrainian regions, Putin could portray any Ukrainian attempt to recapture them as an attack on Russia itself. He said last week he was willing to use nuclear weapons to defend the “territorial integrity” of Russia, and Medvedev issued a new nuclear warning on Tuesday to Ukraine and the West.
But Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskiy, told Reuters that Kyiv would not be swayed by nuclear threats or by the annexation votes, and would press on with plans to retake all territory occupied by invading Russian forces.
Diplomats say the nuclear sabre-rattling is an attempt by Russia to scare the West into reducing its support for Ukraine.
For the first time, Medvedev predicted that the NATO military alliance would not directly enter the Ukraine war even if Russia struck Ukraine with nuclear weapons.
Putin said on state television the votes were designed to protect people from what he has called the persecution of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers by Ukraine, something Kyiv denies.
“Saving people in all the territories where this referendum is being held is … the focus of attention of our entire society and country,” Putin said.
He earlier discussed with officials the mobilisation of farmers to fight in Ukraine, the latest step in a campaign he announced last week to support what Russia calls its “special military operation” after battlefield reverses this month.
The mobilisation has sent thousands of Russians rushing to cross borders into neighbouring countries.
Podolyak said Ukrainians who had helped Russia organise the annexation referendums would face treason charges and at least five years in jail. Ukrainians who were forced to vote would not be punished.
DONETSK IS TOP PRIORITY
None of the four regions is fully under Russia’s control and there has been fighting along the entire front line, with Ukrainian forces reporting more advances since they routed Russian troops in a fifth province, Kharkiv, this month.
Zelenskiy said the Donetsk region in the east remained his country’s – and Russia’s – top strategic priority, with “particularly severe” fighting engulfing several towns.
The general staff of Ukraine’s military said late on Tuesday that Russian forces had shelled seven towns in Donetsk.The military said 20 towns in the Zaporizhzhia region in south-central Ukraine and 35 towns and villages in the Kherson region in the south were also hit.
Leonid Pasechnik, a separatist leader of Luhansk, said on Telegram three municipal gas workers were killed and one wounded by Ukrainian shelling in Brianka.
“The missiles supplied by NATO countries are killing unarmed children, women, elderly people and municipal utility workers,” he said.