The Russian-backed eastern Ukrainian rebel region of Luhansk said on Sunday it may hold a referendum on joining Russia, drawing a warning from Kyiv that any such vote would have no legal basis and trigger a stronger international response.
Three days before ordering the February 24 invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin recognised the Ukrainian rebel regions of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent states, though the rest of the world considers them part of Ukraine.
Ukraine, which says it is fighting for its existence against what it casts as an imperial-style land grab by Russia, has repeatedly said it will never agree to Russia’s annexation of its territory, the hardest part of peace talks with Moscow.
“I think that in the near future a referendum will be held on the territory of the republic,” Leonid Pasechnik, the leader of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, was quoted as saying by the region’s news outlet.
“The people will exercise their ultimate constitutional right and express their opinion on joining the Russian Federation.”
Ukraine said such a referendum in occupied Ukrainian territory would have no legal basis and would face a strong response from the international community, deepening Russia’s global isolation.
“All fake referendums in the temporarily occupied territories are null and void and will have no legal validity,” Ukraine’s foreign ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko said in a statement to Reuters.
“Instead, Russia will face an even stronger response from the international community, further deepening its global isolation.”
Putin says what he casts as a “special military operation” was needed to defend Russia against the United States which he said was arming Ukraine and developing it into an “anti-Russia” with the aim of admitting it into the NATO military alliance.
Russia also says the operation was needed to defend Russian-speaking populations against persecution from Ukraine’s government which it says is a puppet controlled by Washington.
Ukraine says such claims are simply a pretext for occupation and that Moscow does not understand that Ukraine is a sovereign country.
After Russian forces in 2014 took control of Crimea – first annexed by Russia in 1783 – a referendum on joining Russia was held. Voters chose overwhelmingly to join Russia. Ukraine said the referendum was illegal and that Crimea is part of Ukraine.
The West imposed sanctions on Russia over the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Moscow says the majority of the people of Crimea wanted to join Russia.
Ukraine’s leader demands Western nations give arms, asks if they’re afraid of Moscow
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, visibly irritated, demanded that Western nations provide a fraction of the military hardware in their stockpiles to his country and asked whether they were afraid of Moscow.
Several countries have promised to send anti-armour and anti-aircraft missiles as well as small arms but Zelenskyy said Kyiv was not getting what it needed.
“It is tanks for our state. It is missile defence. It is anti-ship weapons. That is what our partners have, that is what is just gathering dust there,” he said in his now customary late-night video address on Saturday.
“This is all not only for the freedom of Ukraine but for the freedom of Europe.”
Ukraine needs just 1% of NATO’s aircraft and 1% of its tanks, he said, adding that it would be impossible to stop Russian attacks on the besieged southern port of Mariupol without enough tanks, armoured vehicles and aircraft.
“We’ve already been waiting 31 days. Who is in charge of the Euro-Atlantic community? Is it really still Moscow, because of intimidation?” he said.
Zelenskiy has repeatedly argued that Russia will seek to expand further into Europe if Ukraine falls. However, NATO has rebuffed his calls for a no-fly zone to be established over Ukraine on the grounds that this could provoke a wider war.
Earlier in the day, Zelenskyy spoke with Polish President Andrzej Duda and expressed disappointment that Russian-made fighter aircraft in Eastern Europe had not yet been transferred to Ukraine, Zelenskyy’s office said in a statement.
Zelenskiy said Poland and the United States had both stated their readiness to make a decision on the planes. But Washington rejected a surprise offer by Poland to transfer MiG-29 fighter jets to a US base in Germany to be used to replenish Ukraine’sair force.
Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Colonel Yuri Ignat told Reuters the country’s pilots had trained for years and conducted joint exercises with US pilots precisely because “we understood that there could be such a scenario”.
Ukraine now needs fighter jets such as American F-15s and F-16s to supplement Ukraine’s ageing Soviet-era MiG-29s and Sukhoi planes, he said, in order to overcome Russia’s numerical and technological superiority in the air.
“We are fighting with the equipment of the ’70s and ’80s, they are fighting with the equipment of 2010 and later,” Ignat said.
“We would be grateful for the Soviet-made equipment offered to us by the countries of Central Europe which still have it. But it will not be enough,” he said.
“We would also like to have Western planes, such as F15, F16. We don’t ask for anything more, like the F35,” Ignat added, referring to a more modern model of US combat aircraft.