Russia plans to annex the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and the southern city of Kherson as early as this month, according to "highly credible" intelligence provided by a senior U.S. official.
NBC News reports that, despite Russia's failure to make significant territorial gains in eastern Ukraine, the invaders plan to solidify their power over those parts of the country they do control.
Russia will likely "stage fraudulent referendums in mid-May in which citizens of Donetsk, Luhansk or Kherson appear to express support for leaving Ukraine and becoming part of Russia," according to The Washington Post. Russia employed a similar strategy in 2014 to annex Crimea.
Donetsk and Luhansk, where most of the population of 3.6 million speaks Russian, are largely controlled by Russian-backed separatists. Just days before invading Ukraine, Russia recognized the two regions as independent "people's republics."
In Kherson, which fell to Russian forces during the first week of the war, Russia already seems to be settling in for a long stay. Reuters reported Monday that the Russian occupiers had re-routed internet traffic through Russia's own communications infrastructure, enabling tighter control of information.