Russia plans to annex territory it controls in Ukraine, US official says

Residents standing in line for the registration of Russian citizenship and passport application, in Melitopol, Zaporizhia region, on July 14, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES, REUTERS) - Russia is taking steps toward annexing parts of Ukraine it controls "in direct violation of Ukraine's sovereignty", a top US national security official warned on Tuesday (July 19), including installing proxy officials expected to call "sham" votes on joining Russia and forcing residents to apply for Russian citizenship.

"Russia is beginning to roll out a version of what you could call an annexation playbook," the official, Mr John Kirby, said at a White House press briefing, drawing parallels to Russia's seizure of Crimea eight years ago.

Mr Kirby said there was "ample evidence in the intelligence and in the public domain" of Russia's unfolding efforts, which include installing the rouble as the national currency in the areas it intends to annex, just as it did in Crimea.

Areas that may be in Russia's annexation plan, Mr Kirby said, include Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, and the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, which make up the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

The Russian embassy in the United States dismissed Washington’s comments as "fundamentally false".  

"To date, more than 45 thousand tons of humanitarian cargo have been sent to Ukraine, the DPR and the LPR. How does all this relate to the concept of annexation?" it said in a Facebook post, referring to the Russian-backed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. 

In 2014, Russian forces invaded Crimea and Mr Putin annexed it after newly installed officials hastily organised a referendum on secession that was reported to have secured the support of 97 per cent of voters, drawing international accusations of fraud.

According to various sources, including the Defence Department, Russia is forcing some residents to apply for Russian passports.

Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that as part of the so-called filtration operations, Russian authorities had begun confiscating Ukrainian passports and issuing Russian passports.

A report from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe released last week also said Russia was forcing Ukrainian citizens to accept Russian passports.

Citing local media sources, the report said "in the newly occupied territories, the occupants are compelling Ukrainians into getting a Russian passport by torturing or paying them".

Mr Kirby said the pattern was particularly evident in Kherson, the first major Ukrainian city to fall, with the installation of Mr Sergei Yeliseyev, a former Russian intelligence officer with "absolutely no connection to Ukraine'.

With the captured city under Mr Yeliseyev's control, Mr Kirby said, "Russia is taking control of broadcasting towers, establishing loyalist security forces, replacing telecommunications infrastructure, forcing residents to apply for Russian citizenship and issuing Russian passports."

On another topic of international concern, Mr Kirby noted there was no immediate evidence that Russia had purchased drones from Iran, which Moscow needs to replenish its fleet.

He also said the United States would announce its 16th package of weapons for Ukraine later this week.

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