The White House on Tuesday warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be preparing to surge more troops into Ukraine after four Russian-controlled regions announced plans to hold referenda on joining Russia.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Mr. Putin called the planned votes a “sham” and said the U.S. will never recognize this territory as anything other than part of Ukraine.
“We know that Russia will use the sham referenda as a basis to purportedly annex these territories either now or in the future,” Mr. Sullivan told reporters.
He also said the White House is also aware of reports that Mr. Putin may be preparing to enact “mobilization measures” to conscript more Russians to “go fight its brutal war in Ukraine.”
Mr. Putin has yet to declare a full-scale war in Ukraine, referring to his invasion as a “special military operation,” which restricts his ability to draft or mobilize reserve forces.
Russia has sustained heavy territorial losses in recent weeks from Ukraine’s aggressive counter-offensive that was enabled by the flood of military aid pouring in from its western allies since the invasion.
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Mr. Sullivan said the counter-offensive has put Russia in dire straights and in need of “more personnel and manpower given the success that Ukraine has had on the battlefield.”
“Russia is scraping for personnel to throw into this fight,” he said.
Videos surfaced online last week showing Kremlin-backed paramilitary force, the Wagner Group, offering felons early release in exchange for six months of service in Ukraine.
But the referenda announced earlier Tuesday in four Russian-controlled regions in eastern and southern Ukraine have sparked fears that Russia could use annexation as a pretext for declaring a full-scale war.
The Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics — two of the territories announcing a vote to join Russia — have been controlled by Russian-backed forces since Russia’s invasion in 2014.
Votes are also being planned in Kherson and parts of the Zaporizhzhia region in the south which were seized by Russia during its most recent invasion this year.
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The votes could be held as soon as later this week.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula following a similar referendum in 2014. Russia has retained control of the region since, despite international condemnation.
In addition to the planned votes in Ukraine, Russia’s Duma on Tuesday passed legislation to stiffen punishments for crimes such as desertion committed by Russian troops during military mobilization, raising concerns that Russia intends to significantly escalate the conflict.
Mr. Sullivan said the White House is “aware of reports” that Mr. Putin “may be preparing to enact mobilization measures” and warned that Mr. Putin is scrambling to maintain his grip in the wake of Ukraine’s sweeping counter-offensive.
“The bottom line is that Russia is throwing together sham referendums on three days’ notice as they continue to lose ground on the battlefield and as more world leaders distance themselves from Russia on the public stage,” he said. “These are not the actions of a confident country. These are not acts of strength, quite the opposite.”