US says Russia plans to annex Donetsk, Luhansk and Kherson

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The United States said on Monday that Moscow was preparing to annex vast new swathes of Ukrainian territory in the coming days, which could be set to consolidate control over much of the east of the country even as Russian forces struggle to control key areas on the battlefield.

The Kremlin’s move to formally claim as part of Russia the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, along with the southern city of Kherson, amid an ongoing intense military battle could push the conflict into an unpredictable and more explosive phase.

It is not clear how Ukrainian forces and their allies would respond to such an attempt, which would reverse Ukraine’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, but, in a crucial nuance, occurs when pro-Ukrainian forces fight to retain control of their territory.

A senior US official said that “highly credible” intelligence indicates that Russia will likely conduct fraudulent referendums in mid-May as citizens of Donetsk, Luhansk or Kherson appear to express support for leaving Ukraine and joining Russia. After that, Russia will likely install pro-Moscow leaders in those regions.

Michael Carpenter, the US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told reporters at the State Department that the vote would be an attempt to give the planned annexation “a deceptive semblance of democratic or electoral legitimacy”. He described the move as “derived from the Kremlin’s playbook” but declined to reveal the intelligence behind the US predictions.

Russia had no immediate response to the allegations.

Carpenter said the US intelligence community’s record of predicting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should give the public confidence in its current assessments. “Unfortunately, we were more right than we were wrong in revealing what we think is coming next,” Carpenter said. He also indicated that the Russian plan might not work.

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Moscow Recognize the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, just before launching the invasion on February 24, sending Russian troops into those regions for “peacekeeping” purposes. In Kherson, the first major city captured by Russian forces, the Kremlin appears to be Laying the foundation To formally consolidate its control, announcing the transition to the Russian currency and – according to the British Ministry of Defense – a willingness to install a puppet local government.

Daniel Fried, a former US ambassador to Poland and a fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Russian President Vladimir Putin may be hoping Europeans will tolerate annexation as a way to end the bloody conflict. But he said apparently Russian atrocities – such as in the town of Bucha, where civilians appear to have been tortured and beheaded – would make it difficult for Ukraine’s western backers to accept an annexation-based peace offensive.

“This plan will work if he wins,” Fried said of Putin. “The problem is that Putin may claim territory not on the basis that he defeated the Ukrainians but on an extravagant claim he cannot support.”

Western officials describe the Russian military under pressure nine weeks into its offensive but still able to bomb strategic areas in southern Ukraine, including the port city of Mariupol, where heavy bombardment has left many civilians unable to reach safety.

A US defense official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity under the Biden administration’s rules, said Russian forces are making “little progress at best” in their attempt to seize the Donbass region.

“In some cases, quite frankly, the best way to describe it is anemia,” the official said. In many cases, the Russian forces withdrew after taking control of a city or town, allowing Ukrainian forces to retake the area, the official said, adding that Russian forces are now launching offensive operations around the city of Izyum in eastern Ukraine that was captured by Russian forces for the first time. in March.

Britain’s Ministry of Defense said more than a quarter of Russian units sent to Ukraine had been so damaged that they were probably “ineffective in combat”. The ministry said it could take years for Russia to reconstitute elite units that were weakened in the war.

Given the accelerating flow of Western weapons to Ukrainian forces, reports of logistical challenges and battlefield repercussions point to a grueling path ahead for Russia as it approaches conventionalism. May 9 Victory Day a celebration. Analysts pointed out that the date may provide Putin an opportunity to present his view of the achievements of the Russian war to the Russian public.

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The US defense official said the Russian army’s chief officer, General Valery Gerasimov, visited the Donbass region last week, but the Pentagon was unable to confirm whether Gerasimov was wounded, as some have. media reports you have a suggestion.

Russian Ministry of Defense, in Update on TelegramIn the meantime, it stated that Russian forces had eliminated a wide range of Ukrainian weapons, including weapons depots, drones, missile launchers and anti-aircraft systems.

Even as the fight for control of the Donbass regions began in slow motion, intense Russian attacks on Mariupol continued, with civilians trapped by a punitive weeks-long siege. If the strategic port city is captured, it will provide Moscow with a land bridge from Russian lands to Crimea.

About 200 civilians, including about 20 children, remained trapped in the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, said Mikhailo Vershinin, chief of Donetsk regional police, where civilians and fighters had taken refuge in underground areas. About 100 noncombatants It was reported that it was evacuated From the spacious complex during the weekend.

Vershinin said he hoped to get civilians, wounded and possibly fighters out of the factory if an agreement could be reached between Russia and Ukraine.

If this were not so, he said, “Russia is completely removing from the face of the earth everything that is left at the plant. This will not be easy, because one way or another we will defend to the last fighter.”

There will be losses for Russia. “It will completely lose its shaky power,” Vershinin said. “And we will be destroyed. … It is a story of this kind.”

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A new poll by The Washington Post and ABC News shows that bipartisan majority They support greater sanctions against Russia that support most of Russia’s humanitarian and military aid, but most of those surveyed oppose direct US military action against Russia.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government she responded angrily In statements by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accusing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is a Jew, of supporting Nazism and notes that “Hitler also had Jewish blood.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said the Russian ambassador to Israel will be recalled over Lavrov’s comments, which he called “unforgivable and outrageous.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the Russian official’s statements were “incorrect and his intentions are wrong.”

As Ukrainian and Western officials call for a larger organized evacuation of civilians from hard-hit areas of Ukraine, a steady stream of vehicles carrying civilians arrived on Monday in the eastern city of Zaporizhia, a destination for those seeking safety across the region’s and Russian front lines. -occupied lands.

Most of them arrived in private cars, with the word “children” written on the windshield in Russian. The passengers inside were exhausted.

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The once-simple journeys took hours, or even days, as Russian soldiers searched families’ mobile phones and personal belongings at each of the dozens of checkpoints. Some said they spent nights in their cars, on the road, in the fields or in churches.

After weeks of failed attempts to leave the town of Inerhodar, a young couple said they woke up on Monday to find their cell phones filled with messages. The road to Zaporizhia was opened.

“We just jumped in the car,” said Yuri, who, like many civilians interviewed at the evacuation point, requested that his family name be withheld amid security concerns for family members still in Russian-controlled territory.

He said he and his girlfriend Victoria had visited her parents days before the invasion, and were planning a short stay. When war engulfed the city, they found themselves trapped. He said the ensuing occupation felt like “terrorism”.

The couple road-tested on Monday to convince Victoria’s family that it was safe. By the time they reached Zaporizhzhia, Yuri was resisting tears. On the phone with her mother, Victoria was also crying. She told her, “We are safe, Mama.” “They were safe.”

Lovelock reported from Zaporizhzhia. Stern reported from Mukachevo, Ukraine. Loveday Morris in Berlin, Steve Hendricks in Jerusalem, Dan Lamothe in Washington and Hana Allam in Lviv, Ukraine contributed to this report.