Putin said Russia would use all available means to defend its territory, meaning that after annexation, Moscow could deploy nuclear weapons to fend off Ukrainian attempts to retake the territory.
“I want to remind you – the deaf who only hear themselves: Russia has the right to use nuclear weapons if necessary,” former leader Dmitry Medvedev – an ally of Putin who is now deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council – said on social media on Tuesday . .
Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said the United States was taking the repeated threat “seriously” but had seen nothing to prompt Washington to change its nuclear stance.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said that “Russia needs to know that the nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought”.
Ukraine’s four Russian-occupied regions announced they would hold elections just days before voting began last Friday.
Together they form a crucial land link for the Kremlin between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014 and is otherwise only connected to the mainland by bridge.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed that the West would never recognize Russia’s annexations of the territories, threatening Moscow with “extra prompt and serious costs” for his “devilish plan”.
French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna in Kiev on a surprise visit to meet Zelenskyy called the polls a “masquerade” that would lead to further Western sanctions.
At the United Nations, top official Rosemary DiCarlo said at a Security Council meeting that the body “remains fully committed” to Ukraine’s territorial integrity “within its internationally recognized borders”.
The United States plans to table a resolution calling on UN member states “not to recognize any changed status of Ukraine and to oblige Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine,” US envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield said.
However, there is no chance that the Security Council will reach a unified position on the annexation movement.
Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s UN ambassador, made it clear that Russia would again veto the Security Council, criticizing the move as “the tantrums of the Western delegations”.
“The referenda were held exclusively transparent, respecting all electoral norms,” Nebenzia argued, adding that the West’s sole aim was to “weaken and bleed Russia as much as possible.”
In Crimea, polling stations were open to people fleeing fighting after the Russian invasion in February.
“With my vote, I want to try to make a small contribution to stopping the war,” 63-year-old Galina Korsakova from Donetsk told AFP.
“I really want to go home.”
The so-called referendums follow a pattern Moscow used in Crimea after nationwide street demonstrations that impeached the Ukrainian Kremlin-friendly president.
As in Crimea, observers saw the outcome as a foregone conclusion. Election officials carried the ballot boxes door to door, in many cases accompanied by armed Russian troops.
According to Russian state media, the next step for the Russian parliament, the State Duma, is to pass an annexation law that formally incorporates the four regions into Russian territory. This could happen on Wednesday and would be followed by approval from the Russian upper house.
After that, Putin is expected to formally declare Ukraine’s regions to be Russia on Friday, Russian news agencies said.
Ukrainian forces continue their counter-offensive in the east.
The governor of the eastern region of Kharkov announced on Tuesday that his troops had recaptured Kupiansk-Vuzlovyi, “one of the largest logistics and railway hubs” in the region. It’s not in this week’s vote.