The steps Russia is planning could include “sham” referenda, installing illegitimate proxy officials, establishing the Russian Ruble as the official currency and forcing Ukrainian citizens to apply for Russian citizenship, said John Kirby, the communications coordinator at the National Security Council.
Kirby warned the US would punish Russia with additional sanctions for attempts to further annex Ukrainian territory, and said the White House would unveil additional security assistance to Ukraine later this week. He cited US intelligence that had been downgraded and approved for public release to make the claims about Russia’s plans.
“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,” Kirby told reporters at the White House. He said the potential referenda could take place soon.
“The Kremlin has not disclosed the timeline for the referenda, but Russian proxies in these territories claim they will take place later this year, possibly in conjunction with Russia’s September regional elections,” Kirby said, listing the regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, along with the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, as likely targets of Russia’s annexation plans.
The US and its western allies have sought to turn around momentum in Ukraine as Russia makes incremental gains in the western part of the country. Biden has approved billions in arms shipments and other security assistance and applied several rounds of sanctions on Moscow.
The disclosure Russia could be moving to annex parts of Ukrainian territory is the latest US attempt to preempt Moscow’s plans by revealing them ahead of time. Biden and other officials warned Russia was planning an invasion of Ukraine in the weeks before it was launched earlier this year.
An annexation attempt would come roughly eight years after Russia seized the Crimean peninsula, which Russian President Vladimir Putin said was meant to “return” the territory to Russia.
That included capturing sites in Crimea, installing a pro-Russian government and holding a referendum on the region’s status. The US responded with sanctions.
Kirby said Tuesday the US would respond similarly to annexation attempts in other parts of Ukraine.
“We’re going to respond swiftly and severely and in lockstep with our allies and partners,” he said. “Russia will face additional sanctions and become even more of a global pariah than it is now. We will never recognize any purportedly annexed territories belonging to Russia.”