“First, these proxy officials will arrange sham referenda on joining Russia. Then, Russia will use those sham referenda as a basis to try to claim annexation of sovereign Ukrainian territory,” Kirby told reporters during Tuesday’s White House press briefing. Kirby added that the referendums “will take place later this year, possibly in conjunction with Russia’s regional elections.”
The Kremlin is actively reviewing “detailed plans,” he said.
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Russia honed its “annexation playbook” in 2014, when it occupied the Crimean Peninsula and subjected it to a referendum, effectively bringing the region under Russian rule. It remains a de facto part of Russia, despite the international community’s efforts to condemn and punish Moscow for the move.
Putin never attempted a similar move with the parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that fell under the control of pro-Russian separatists during heavy fighting in Donbas that followed Crimea’s annexation. But Kirby said Russia has been preparing for such a land grab, and doing so with increased urgency as it slowly presses its occupation deeper into Ukrainian territory.
He cited examples of Moscow installing Russian banks and establishing the ruble as the official currency, forcing residents to apply for Russian citizenship and passports, installing loyalists as regional government officials, and controlling broadcasting towers, the internet and other telecommunications infrastructure to ensure complete control of the information residents receive.
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The United States and its partners have responded to some of these moves by imposing sanctions on some of the local and regional governors Russia installed to run the territories it has occupied. Kirby promised Tuesday that Washington “will not allow” an annexation “to go unchallenged or unpunished,” pledging that “Russia will face additional sanctions and become even more of a global pariah than it is now.”
The United States, Canada, Europe and other allies have hit Russia with record sanctions that have had an impact on the domestic economy. But Moscow’s continued energy exports, coupled with high oil and gas prices, have helped soften the blow Washington had hoped to inflict.
Kirby said the United States would “continue to provide Ukraine with historic levels of security assistance,” previewing an additional military aid package expected to be announced later this week. The package will include more long-range artillery systems and ammunition, Kirby said, predicting that such weapons would help Ukrainian resistors “retake that territory” Russia seeks to annex.
It is unclear whether the United States will send Ukraine the more powerful systems it has requested — or revoke its requirement that the government in Kyiv not use advanced rocket systems to strike Russian territory. The administration has sought to impose those conditions over concerns that counterstrikes on Russian land would be construed by Moscow as escalator and prompt a backlash that the West hopes to avoid.
Should Russia lay claim to parts of Ukraine, it could force a moment of reckoning for the United States, observers say.
“I’ve never understood that message that in the context of war, the victim of the war has no right to retaliate against the aggressor. Of course they have the right to retaliate,” said Alina Polyakova, president and chief executive of the Center for European Policy Analysis. “It’s obviously within Ukraine’s every right to continue to try to take back those territories, because they’re occupied territories, and I hope we don’t treat them as Russia and then try to prevent Ukraine from launching counteroffensives.”
Polyakova noted that what has played out in Crimea suggests any additional territories Russia might annex could also be subject to more Western sanctions.
“Even though no one’s going to recognize those territories as part of Russia officially,” she said, “they’ll de facto be treated in the same way.”