Russian leaders have indicated that they may vote for annexation in the occupied parts of eastern and southern Ukraine – in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions – on 9/11, along with the already scheduled regional elections. Russian officials say these votes would legitimize Russia’s claim to these areas, but critics say the vote would be a farce that Russia manipulated.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Senior White House Officials They warned that any attempt to seize territory through “sham” referendums would result in “extra costs being imposed on Russia”.
It is not clear what these consequences will be. Just as they did before the Russian invasion on February 24, Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials are pushing their Western partners to declare sanctions as a deterrent. Zelensky told The Post on Monday that the sanctions already imposed on Russia over its gratuitous war in Ukraine are “weak” compared to the one-year closing of borders to Russian citizens and a complete ban on Russian energy purchases.
Russian airlines have been banned from flying over most of Europe and North America, which has made it more difficult for Russians to travel abroad. But there is no blanket ban, as Zelensky suggests. Russian citizens are still free to apply for a visa to visit the United States, for example.
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin She told reporters on Monday that she believed the issuance of tourist visas to Russians should be restricted and called for an EU-wide ban.
Some critics have argued that banning all Russians would unfairly affect those who left their country because they disagree with President Vladimir Putin’s government and his decision to attack Ukraine.
Such distinctions do not matter, Zelensky said: “Whatever kind of Russians … make them go to Russia.”
Then he said, “They will understand.” “They will say, this [war] We have nothing to do with it. Not all residents can be held responsible, right? Can. The population chose this government and they do not fight it, do not argue with it, do not shout at it.”
“Don’t you want this solitude?” Zelensky added, speaking as if he was addressing the Russians directly. “You tell the whole world that he must live by your rules. Then go and live there. This is the only way to influence Putin.”
Zelensky spoke for an hour in his presidential office, where the corridors are kept dark and lined with sandbags to protect against attack. Zelensky wore a black T-shirt with the Ukrainian trident symbol, instead of his usual green military uniform. He leaned forward and moved as he answered questions, gestured with his hands, and tapped on the white table to make his points.
Russia’s takeover of Zaporizhia sparked controversy on Monday in the wake of alleged strikes on Europe’s largest nuclear plant at the weekend. This caused explosions reported near a spent fuel storage facility not designed to survive such attacks.
In response, world leaders and experts called on the Russian occupying forces and Ukrainian defenders to declare an army-free zone around the site and allow in international inspectors. Russia indicated on Monday that it would do so, but did not say whether it would take the necessary steps to facilitate such a visit.
The two sides blamed each other for the blasts near the Zaporizhzhya plant, which Russia seized in March. Ukraine accuses Russia of using the factory as an artillery shield and launching missiles into the region. Russia accused Ukraine of launching strikes in the vicinity of the region.
One of the challenges for Ukrainian officials pushing for strong measures to prevent a referendum in Kherson is to explain why it marked a turning point in the war. The vast majority of the international community would not recognize such a vote or Russia’s subsequent annexation. But analysts say that once the territory is formally claimed by the Russians and declared part of Russia, it will erase any possibility of Russian forces withdrawing without forcing them to withdraw militarily.
Ukrainian officials understand Russia’s thinking from experience. Russian forces invaded Crimea in 2014, held a vote that was rejected internationally and have controlled the peninsula ever since. Officials in Kyiv still complain that the Western reaction was not strong enough at the time.
Annexation would also complicate matters for the Western countries that were supplying arms to Ukraine. Officials in Washington and European capitals have carefully sought to limit the weapons they provide for strikes on Russian forces inside Ukraine. But if Moscow considers that the strikes in Kherson and Zaporizhia after the referendum were aimed at Russian territory, it may risk dragging NATO countries into the conflict.
Zelensky said that annexing the territories would rule out negotiations with Russia.
Ukrainian officials are also concerned that Russia will raise the timetable for the referendum in response to Ukraine’s threat to launch a military counterattack in the region. Ukrainian forces were steadily regaining strength around Kherson, the first major city occupied by Russia and the only regional capital.
Military advances are often one small village at a time. Some have aided in this progress through Ukraine’s use of US-supplied M142 High Mobility Missile Systems, or HIMARS launchers, to destroy the Antonovsky Bridge, which is central to Russia’s efforts to resupply its forces.
Russia appears to be shifting its forces and equipment south in response, which could lead to a military conflict over a major Black Sea port that analysts say could be key to the course of the war. Zelensky said he wanted Russia to know that regaining control of Kherson was just the first step: “Let them know that as soon as we have enough forces and means, we will cancel the occupation of all our lands.”
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