Separatists in Ukraine set ‘referendums’ on annexation of occupied territories

Ukraine said its troops are continuing to make gains moving eastward toward the Russian-occupied Donbas region, setting the stage for a push to potentially recapture parts of Luhansk province. Ukraine’s Luhansk provincial Governor Serhiy Gaidai said Ukrainan troops had retaken the village of Bilohorivka, a suburb 10 kilometers (6 miles) west of the city of Lysychansk, which fell to Russian forces after fierce fighting in July. Although the reports could not be independently verified, the capture of Bilohorivka would mean Russia no longer has full control of Luhansk province. Lysychansk was the last Ukrainian city in Luhansk to fall after the Russian summer offensive in the region, which had been touted as a major victory by Moscow. Gaidai said Ukrainian forces are preparing to take the remainder of Luhansk province from Russian occupiers. « There will be fighting for every centimeter, » Gaidai wrote on Telegram. « The enemy is preparing their defense. So we will not simply march in, » he added. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukrainian troops were gaining ground as Russian soldiers abandoned territory. « The occupiers are clearly in a panic, » Zelenskyy said in a televised address late on Monday, adding that he was now focused on « speed » in liberated areas. On Tuesday, Russian-installed officials in Luhansk claimed that a Ukrainian strike on Krasnorichenske, a village some 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of Lysychansk, killed seven civilians. On Tuesday, Russia-backed separatists in the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) said they will hold a referendum on joining Russia between September 23-27, according to Russia’s TASS news agency. Shortly thereafter, the neighboring Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) said it would also stage a similar referendum on the same dates. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that it is up to the people living in the « respective territories to decide their fate. » Earlier Tuesday, Russia’s former president and current head of the Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, said it is « essential » that the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics hold referendums in order to join the Russian Federation. Medvedev said on social media that joining Russia would be vital to protecting their interests because it could further justify Russia’s use of military force against Ukrainian troops in the Donbas. The comments come as Vyacheslav Volodin, head of the Duma, said Moscow will support the citizens of the Donbas if they decide to join Russia. Only three countries recognize the two self-declared republics as independent: Russia, Syria and North Korea. Moscow-backed leaders in the Russian-occupied Kherson region of southern Ukraine and pro-Russia activists in the partly-occupied Zaporizhzhia region also plan to hold speedy referendums on joining Russia. In Kherson, the strategic port city that is the westernmost point of Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine, Russian-installed leader Vladimir Saldo urged Moscow to green-light a local referendum so that Kherson could become « a part of Russia, a fully-fledged subject of a united country. »