New reporting in Bloomberg alleges that President Vladimir Putin's plan for captured territories in Ukraine is to absorb them into the Russian federation by staging referendums as early as September, citing "people familiar with the strategy".
"Officials are preparing to organize votes in areas currently controlled by the Russian military and any others its troops are able to seize in coming weeks, three people said," the report indicates. "The goal is to conduct referendums on joining Russia by Sept. 15, two of the people said, asking not to be identified because the issue is sensitive."
The allegation that Russian plans to go on an annexation spree comes the day following spokesman for the National Security Council (NSC) John Kirby giving a White House news briefing which laid out that the Kremlin is organizing a "sham referendum" in areas of Ukraine under military occupation. He speculated this could come in September, mentioning further that this will involve imposing the ruble and pressuring or forcing Ukrainians to apply for Russian citizenship.
Kirby held up Crimea as the foremost example of what's to come for territory in eastern Ukraine and elsewhere:
"Russia is beginning to roll out a version of what you could call an annexation playbook very similar to the one we saw in 2014."
The US administration now says that in addition to annexation plans targeting Donetsk and Luhansk - already home to pro-Russian breakaway republics since 2014 - Moscow is further eyeing Kherson and Zaporizhya.
"Already, Russia is installing illegitimate proxy officials in the areas of Ukraine that are under its control," Kirby said."Annexation by force will be a gross violation of the UN Charter and we will not allow it to go unchallenged or unpunished," Kirby said.
In its Thursday reporting, Bloomberg provides what it says are details of the Kremlin plans for the annexation of Donbas:
The project is directed by Sergei Kiriyenko, the Kremlin’s first deputy chief of staff, according to the people, with attention focused on the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Ukraine’s east as well as the southern territories of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Kiriyenko, who is under US and European Union sanctions, regularly visits occupied territories to oversee officials preparing for the referendums, they said.
The report suggests this would demonstrate both to the Russian domestic population and to the world definitive "progress" regarding the slow-grinding invasion, now five months in.
Lavrov gives the biggest official signal yet that Russia is planning to annex southern Ukraine.— max seddon (@maxseddon) July 20, 2022
"Now the geography has changed. It's not just Donetsk and Luhansk, it's Kherson, Zaporizhia, and several other territories. And this is an ongoing process, consistent and insistent." pic.twitter.com/xN6IMmAr5R
Russia for its part has rejected the White House characterization of it using "force" to bring populations under its suzerainty. Foreign ministry statements have cast any potential referendums on the horizon as a demonstration of the people's free will to choose their political fate.
Looming in the background to these alleged annexation plans is the question of the Russian military's scope for its invasion. Will it stop in the east or areas of the south it already controls? Have Putin's goals expanded? A Wednesday report in FT says essentially yes.
"Russia’s foreign minister said Moscow had expanded its war aims for its invasion of Ukraine, the strongest sign yet that it seeks to annex parts of the country currently under its control," FT wrote, and cited that:
Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that Russia’s goals were more ambitious than Moscow had declared at the start of the war in February, when it claimed its goal was to "liberate" the eastern Donbas border region. Moscow’s war aims now extend to the provinces of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in southern Ukraine, which are mostly occupied by Russian forces, Lavrov said.
Lavrov also said a "number of other territories" are additionally included in the new war aims, though without naming them.
President Vladimir Putin and his top generals within the opening two months of the war made it clear that a central goal was to "liberate" the Donbas region, but speculation has since abounded over whether the Kremlin would keep going beyond this territory.