Russia could begin announcing referenda designed to formalize its control of occupied parts of Ukraine as soon as this week, a senior White House official said Wednesday.
The United States has learned “that Russian leadership has instructed officials to begin preparing to hold sham referenda” in Kherson, Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and “particularly” Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, White House national security spokesman John Kirby said.
“These referenda could begin in a matter of days or weeks. In fact, we could see a Russian announcement of the first one or ones before the end of this week,” he said.
“Since they obviously are having trouble achieving geographic gains inside Ukraine, they are trying to gain that through false political means,” he said.
Kirby claimed that there is minimal support from Ukrainians in those areas for being annexed by Russia.
“We expect Russia to try to manipulate the results of these referenda, to falsely claim that the Ukrainian people want to join Russia,” he said.
“It will be critical to call out and counter this disinformation in real time,” he said.
Weeks after seizing control of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014, Moscow held a referendum that purportedly showed the local people wanted to join Russia.
Kirby said US intelligence says that Russian officials in the occupied areas are worried that local people will not turn out to take part in the vote.
To deal with that, the Russians are planning “workarounds” to demonstrate success, Kirby said, without providing any details.
“The Russian officials themselves know that what they’re doing will lack legitimacy, and it will not reflect the will of the people,” he said.
“The United States and the international community have been very clear that any attempts at controlling Ukraine’s sovereign territory will not be considered legitimate,” he said.