The swift developments come just a week after Ukraine successfully reclaimed swaths of territory, in what many observers said could be a decisive shift that exposed Russian military vulnerability and provoked criticism from even fervent Kremlin supporters.
Washington condemned the planned votes as a “sham” it would never recognize.
“We are aware of reports that President Putin may be preparing to enact mobilization measures. Like its sham annexation planning, this is reflective of Russia’s struggles in Ukraine,” said White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
French President Emmanuel Macron called the planned votes “cynical” and “a parody.” Speaking in New York, where world leaders are attending the United Nations General Assembly, Macron told reporters that if the “idea wasn’t so tragic it would be funny.”
Kyiv has been boosted by Western-supplied weapons, including long-range rocket systems supplied by the U.S., leading voices on Russian state media to argue that the country is fighting not just Ukraine but NATO as well.
Putin has so far resisted calls from nationalist voices and pro-military bloggers for general mobilization, a move that could boost his ailing forces but may prove unpopular with the Russian public.
The Russian leader was expected to deliver an address to the nation later Tuesday, further stoking speculation about what he might announce.
One of the Kremlin’s most hawkish figures, former President Dmitry Medvedev, said Monday that holding the referendums was “of great importance,” while signaling that absorbing the Donbas provinces would make encroaching on them equivalent to striking Russia, raising the risk of further escalation if Ukrainian troops continue to advance in the area.
The editor-in-chief of the Kremlin-backed channel RT, Margarita Simonyan, who has been one of the most vocal proponents of the war, also invoked the idea of red lines.
“Today a referendum, tomorrow — recognition as part of the Russian Federation, the day after tomorrow — strikes on the territory of Russia become a full-fledged war between Ukraine and NATO with Russia, untying Russia’s hands in all respects,” she said in a post on Telegram.
News of the planned referendums was condemned by Kyiv.
“Sham ‘referendums’ will not change anything,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said. “Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say,” he said in a tweet.
The head of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office, Andriy Yermak, said the referendums are part of Russia’s “naïve blackmail.”
“This is what the fear of defeat looks like,” Yermak wrote in a post on the Telegram messaging app.