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Russia is preparing to annex 4 Ukrainian regions after 'sham' referendums

Four Russian-controlled areas in eastern and southern Ukraine announced Tuesday that they will hold "referendums" this week on joining Russia, paving the way for annexation. The votes in Russian-occupied parts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson provinces will start Friday and last for three days.

"Russia does not have a firm military grip on any of the regions it could move to annex," as Ukraine's army continues to retake territory from Russian forces, The Washington Post reports. "Seizing Ukrainian sovereign territory in flagrant violation of international law" is "a remarkably brazen" escalation by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

These "sham 'referendums' will not change anything," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said. "Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say."

The U.S. and Europe agreed. "The United States will never recognize Russia's claims to purportedly annexed territory," and "never recognize this territory as anything other than part of Ukraine," White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters. "Sham referendums have no legitimacy," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted.

"The Kremlin's annexation plans are primarily targeting a domestic audience," the Institute for the Study of War think tank assessed Tuesday night. Putin ally Dmitri Medvedv, deputy head of Russia's Security Council, said the referendums and annexation would make the areas "irreversibly" part of Russia, and "an invasion into Russian territory is a crime, the execution of which will enable our use of all powers of self-defense." 

That thinly veiled threat of nuclear retaliation was more explicit from RT's hawkish chief editor, Margarita Simonyan. "Today a referendum, tomorrow — recognition as part of the Russian Federation," she wrote Monday. "The day after tomorrow — strikes on the territory of Russia become a full-fledged war between Ukraine and NATO with Russia, untying Russia's hands in all respects." Given "what is about to happen, this week marks either the eve of our imminent victory or the eve of nuclear war," she added Tuesday.

Simonyan and other Russian journalists on Tuesday "breathlessly touted" a nationally televised speech Putin would deliver Tuesday night, presumably to announced some escalation in Russia's Ukraine offensive, The New York Times reports. "And then ... they declared it was postponed."

"There was no official explanation from the Kremlin about why the speech was delayed — or even that it had been planned at all," the Times notes. "Russian officials are demonstrably panicked over Ukrainian advances," ISW writes, and the fact that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was supposed to join Putin in his address suggests "Putin intended to make Shoigu the face of the current effort" — and "his most likely scapegoat" if things continue going badly in Ukraine.