The Russian-installed head of the occupied part of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region signed a decree on Monday providing for a referendum on joining Russia, in the latest sign that Moscow is moving ahead with its plans to annex seized Ukrainian territory.

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has ruled out any peace talks with Russia if the country proceeds with referendums in the occupied areas.

Yevgeny Balitsky, the head of the pro-Russia administration in the region, announced the decision to kickstart the process during a pro-Moscow forum entitled “We are with Russia” organised in Melitopol, the largest city controlled by Russia in Zaporizhzhia.

“I am signing the order for the central election committee to start the preparations for holding a referendum on the reunification of the Zaporizhzhia region with the Russian Federation,” Balitsky said.

Roughly two-thirds of Zaporizhzhia is under Russian occupation, part of a swathe of southern Ukraine that Moscow captured early in the war, including most of the neighbouring Kherson region, where Russian officials have also discussed plans for a referendum.

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Russia-appointed officials in Zaporizhzhia earlier said that the administration planned to proceed with a referendum even if Russia did not gain control over the entire region. Zaporizhzhia city is still held by Ukraine.

Ukraine and its western allies have said that any referendums held under Russian occupation would be illegal and their results fraudulent. In 2014, Moscow and its proxies carried out a widely condemned referendum in Crimea, weeks after its forces seized the peninsula.

On Sunday, Zelenskiy said peace talks with Russia would be impossible if the country proceeded with such votes in the occupied areas.

“Our country’s position remains what it always has been. We will give up nothing of what is ours,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly address to the nation.

“If the occupiers proceed along the path of pseudo-referendums they will close for themselves any chance of talks with Ukraine and the free world, which the Russian side will clearly need at some point.

Balitsky on Monday gave no further details about the timing of the referendum. Bloomberg, citing two unnamed sources familiar with Moscow’s strategy, earlier reported that the Kremlin was aiming to conduct the referendums by 15 September.

Kremlin-appointed officials in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia had already instigated a number of measures aimed at bringing the occupied regions closer to Russia and setting the stage for a future referendum.

Earlier this summer, the Russian occupation authorities had started to hand out Russian passports to locals in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Moscow has also forced Ukrainian teachers in occupied territories to follow the Russian curriculum, while “We are with Russia” billboards have sprung up across occupied cities.

In a move further signalling Moscow’s intentions, the pro-Russian authorities in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia have set up local “elections committees” that are to be responsible for running the referendums.

President Vladimir Putin initially denied that Moscow was seeking to occupy new land when Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February.

However, he has since made a string of statements in which he sought to justify what he portrayed as Russia’s historic quests to win back Russian lands.

Last month, Russia’s minister of foreign affairs, Sergei Lavrov, said that Moscow had expanded its war aims in Ukraine, saying they now extended to Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.

The Kremlin has also repeatedly hinted that it would recognise the referendums held in the seized Ukrainian territories, which would present the opportunity for Putin to declare the conquered areas as Russian territory.

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Ukraine, boosted by western weapons, has vowed to mount a major counteroffensive in the country’s south.

However, the annexation of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia could complicate Ukraine’s attempts to recapture the areas: if annexed by Moscow, the territories would be protected by the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Speaking to the BBC on Monday, the retired British general Sir Richard Barrons said that a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive launched in the southern regions annexed by Moscow would raise the prospect of Russia using “small nuclear weapons”.

“Ukraine would now be pushing into territory that Russia has declared as Russia, and at that point doctrinally and probably politically, Russia will start to reach for its tactical, its small nuclear weapons,” Barrons said, adding that those weapons would have a radius of “roughly two miles”.

“We need to think through that and not regard it as some sort of terrible surprise that is completely unthinkable,” he said.

Source: The Guardian