The Kremlin is likely to be pressing ahead with planning a staged referendum in the Donbas region of Ukraine on joining Russia, the UK said on Monday.
Vladimir Putin’s forces and their allies control swathes of eastern Ukraine and reports have emerged in recent weeks that Moscow is planning to stage referendums in captured areas over becoming part of Russia.
In its latest update on the Ukraine war, the Ministry of Defence flagged Russian media reports last week that the head of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic had said the date of a referendum would be announced after the region’s “complete liberation”.
Russia is bidding to take control of Donetsk province after pro-Moscow forces seized neighbouring Luhansk. The two provinces make up Donbas, which has become a key target for Russia after its initial plan to quickly seize control of the whole of Ukraine fell apart within weeks of launching its invasion on February 24.
The ministry wrote on Twitter on Monday: “Previously, in June 2022, investigative journalists published evidence of [the republic] planning strategy for running such a referendum and for ensuring that at least 70 per cent of votes were in favour of joining Russia.
Latest Defence Intelligence update on the situation in Ukraine - 15 August 2022
Find out more about the UK government's response: https://t.co/6TpEvHdDB9
🇺🇦 #StandWithUkraine 🇺🇦 pic.twitter.com/hKzX3KFOoC
— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) August 15, 2022
“It is likely that Russia is in the advanced planning stages to hold a referendum, though it is unclear if the final decision to go ahead with a vote has yet been taken.”
It added: “The Kremlin will likely see the military’s failure to occupy the entirety of Donetsk Oblast [the surrounding region] thus far as a setback for its maximalist objectives in Ukraine.”
It comes as Ukrainian forces reported heavy Russian shelling and attempts to advance on several towns in Donetsk - now a key focus of the near six-month war.
The General Staff of Ukraine’s armed forces reported Russian shelling of more than a dozen towns on the southern front - particularly the Kherson region, mainly controlled by Russian forces, but where Ukrainian troops are steadily capturing territory.
Much attention has been focused on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in southern Ukraine amid fears of a catastrophe over renewed shelling in recent days that Russia and Ukraine blame on each other.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for the establishment of a demilitarised zone and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has warned Russian soldiers who shoot at Europe’s largest nuclear power station or use it as a base to shoot from that they will become a “special target” of Ukrainian forces.
The Zaporizhzhia plant dominates the south bank of a vast reservoir on the Dnipro River. Ukrainian forces controlling the towns and cities on the opposite bank have come under intense bombardment from the Russian-held side.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, which seeks to inspect the plant, has warned of a nuclear disaster unless fighting stops. Nuclear experts fear fighting might damage the plant’s spent fuel pools or reactors.
Mr Zelensky said Ukraine had many times proposed different formats to the Russian leadership for peace talks, without progress.
“So we have to defend ourselves, we have to answer every form of terror, every instance of shelling - the fierce shelling which does not let up for a single day,” he said in video remarks on Sunday night.