Four occupied regions in Ukraine are set to start voting Friday in Kremlin-engineered referendums on whether to become part of Russia, setting the stage for Moscow to annex the areas in a sharp escalation of the nearly seven-month war.
Ukraine and its Western allies have rejected the votes as illegitimate and neither free nor fair, saying they will have no binding force.
German chancellor Olaf Scholz and US President Joe Biden both branded the votes as “sham referenda” this week, while French President Emmanuel Macron said they would have “no legal consequences,” and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called them “noise” to distract the public.
Authorities in the separatist Luhansk and Donetsk regions that make up Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland known as the Donbas abruptly announced just three days ago that referendums on joining Russia would be held starting Friday. Moscow-backed officials in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in the south also called votes.
The moves followed months of conflicting signals from Moscow and separatist officials about the referendums that reflected the shifts on the battlefield.
During the summer, when the Kremlin hoped for a quick capture of all of the Donbas region, local officials talked about organizing the votes in September.
Russian troops and local separatist forces have taken control of virtually all of the Luhansk region, but only about 60% of the Donetsk region. The slow pace of Russia’s offensive in the east and