Russian leaders have signaled that they could hold annexation votes in the occupied eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, on September 11, along with regional elections that are already scheduled. Russian officials say those votes would legitimize Russia’s claim to those areas, but critics say the votes would be a farce manipulated by Russia.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and senior White House officials they warned that any attempted land grabs through “bogus” referendums would bring “additional costs imposed on Russia”.
It is unclear what those consequences would be. As they did before Russia invaded on February 24, Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials are pressing their Western partners to announce sanctions as a deterrent. Zelensky told The Post on Monday that the sanctions already imposed on Russia for its unprovoked war in Ukraine are “weak” compared to closing borders to Russian citizens for a year and an outright embargo on Russian energy purchases. .
Russian airlines have been banned from flying over most of Europe and North America, making it more difficult for Russians to travel abroad. But there is no blanket ban such as Zelensky suggests; Russian citizens can still apply for a visa to visit the United States, for example.
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin told reporters on Monday that he believes the issuance of tourist visas to Russians should be restricted and called for a European Union-wide ban.
Some critics have argued that banning all Russians would unfairly affect those who left their country because they disagree with President Vladimir Putin’s government and its decision to attack Ukraine.
Zelensky said that such distinctions do not matter: “Whatever the type of Russian… make them go to Russia.”
“Then they will understand,” he said. “They will say: ‘This [war] It has nothing to do with us. You can’t hold the entire population responsible, can you? Can. The population elected this government and they don’t fight it, they don’t discuss it, they don’t yell at it.”
“Don’t you want this isolation?” Zelensky added, speaking as if he were addressing the Russians directly. “You are telling everyone that they must live by your rules. Then go and live there. This is the only way to influence Putin.”
Zelensky spoke for an hour in his presidential office, where hallways are kept dark and lined with sandbags to protect them from attack. Zelensky was wearing a black T-shirt with the Ukrainian trident symbol, instead of his usual military green uniform. He was leaning forward and animated as he answered questions, gesturing with his hands, banging on the white table to make his point.
Russia’s control of Zaporizhzhia also sparked controversy on Monday in the wake of alleged attacks on Europe’s largest nuclear plant over the weekend. Those caused reported explosions near a spent fuel storage facility that was not designed to survive such attacks.
In response, world leaders and experts called on the Russian occupation forces and Ukrainian defenders to declare a military-free zone around the site and allow international inspectors to enter. Russia indicated Monday that it would do so, but did not indicate whether it would take steps to facilitate such a visit.
Both sides have traded blame for the explosions near the Zaporizhzhia plant, which Russia seized in March. Ukraine has accused Russia of using the plant as a shield for artillery and firing rockets in the area. Russia has accused Ukraine of launching attacks in the surrounding area.
One challenge for Ukrainian officials pushing for strong measures to prevent a referendum in Kherson is to explain why it would mark a turning point in the war. The vast majority of the international community would not recognize such a vote or Russia’s subsequent annexation. But analysts say that once the Russians have officially claimed the territory and declared it part of Russia, it would erase any chance of Russian troops withdrawing without being forced militarily.
Ukrainian officials understand Russia’s thinking from experience. Russian forces invaded Crimea in 2014, held a vote that was rejected internationally, and have been in control of the peninsula ever since. Kyiv officials still complain that the Western response was not strong enough at the time.
Annexation would also complicate matters for Western countries that have been supplying Ukraine with weapons. Officials in Washington and European capitals have carefully tried to limit the weapons they provide for attacks against Russian forces inside Ukraine. But if Moscow sees the post-referendum attacks in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia as targeting Russian territory, it could risk dragging NATO countries into the conflict.
Zelensky has said that annexation of territory would rule out negotiations with Russia.
Ukrainian officials are also concerned that Russia will move up its referendum schedule in response to Ukraine’s threats of a military counteroffensive in the region. Ukrainian forces have been steadily gaining ground around the city of Kherson, the first major city Russia captured and the only regional capital.
Military advances are often one small town at a time. That progress has been aided in part by Ukraine’s use of the US-supplied M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS launchers, to damage the Antonovsky Bridge, which is key to Russia’s resupply efforts. to his troops.
Russia appears to be moving its troops and equipment south in response, potentially sparking a military conflict over the key Black Sea port that analysts say could be key to the trajectory of the war. Zelensky said he wanted Russia to know that regaining control of Kherson was only a first step: “Let them know that as soon as we have enough forces and means, we will vacate all our territories.”