US accuses Russia of planning ‘sham referenda’ to justify war in Ukraine

West ramps up weapons supplies to Ukraine as fighting in east intensifies

The United States accused Russia on Thursday of planning to stage fake independence votes to justify its conquest of territory in Ukraine, as Russian forces stepped up a major offensive in the east.

Responding to repeated Ukrainian pleas to western leaders for supplies of heavier weaponry and equipment, US president Joe Biden asked Congress on Thursday for $33 billion (€31.4m) to support Kyiv, a massive jump in US funding that includes over $20 billion for weapons and ammunition and other military aid.

The package, also entailing $8.5 billion in direct economic assistance and $3 billion in humanitarian and food security aid, forms part of US efforts to isolate and punish Russia for its February 24th invasion of Ukraine, which has flattened cities and forced more than 5 million people to flee abroad.

Washington has said it hopes Ukrainian forces can not only repel Russia’s assault on the east but also weaken its military so that it can no longer menace neighbours.

Russia says that amounts to Nato waging “proxy war” against it, and has made a number of threats this week of unspecified retaliation.

After being beaten back in efforts to capture the capital Kyiv in the north, Russia has shifted forces hundreds of miles eastward to capture two provinces in a battle the West believe may prove a decisive turning point in the war. Russian forces are now entrenched in the east, where Moscow-backed separatists have held some territory since 2014, and also hold a swathe of the south they seized in March.

‘Well-worn playbook’

The US mission to the OSCE security body said the Kremlin might attempt “sham referenda” in southern and eastern areas it had captured since the February 24th invasion, using “a well-worn playbook that steals from history’s darkest chapters”.

“These falsified, illegitimate referenda will undoubtedly be accompanied by a wave of abuses against those who seek to oppose or undermine Moscow’s plans,” the US mission said.

“The international community must make clear that any such referendum will never be recognised as legitimate.”

Ukraine reported explosions overnight in the southern city of Kherson, the only regional capital Russia has captured so far since the invasion.

Russian troops there had used tear gas and stun grenades on Wednesday to quell pro-Ukrainian crowds, and were now shelling the entire surrounding region and attacking towards Mykolaiv and Kryvyi Rih, Ukrainian officials said.

Russian state media quoted an official from a self-styled pro-Russian “military-civilian commission” in Kherson on Thursday as saying the area would start using Russia’s rouble currency from May 1st.

Ukraine’s general staff said Russia was also stepping up its main military assault in the east, where Moscow now aims to seize all of two provinces partially controlled by separatists. “The enemy is increasing the pace of the offensive operation. The Russian occupiers are exerting intense fire in almost all directions,” it said.

It identified Russia’s main attack as near the towns of Slobozhanske and Donets, along a strategic frontline highway linking Ukraine’s second largest city Kharkiv with the Russian-occupied city of Izyum.

The Kharkiv regional governor said Russian forces were ratcheting up attacks from Izyum, but Ukrainian troops were holding their ground. Kharkiv regional prosecutors said two civilians were killed and seven wounded in Russian shelling of the village of Pokotilovka on Thursday. Reuters could not independently verify the report. Russia denies targeting civilians.

President Vladimir Putin calls Russian actions in Ukraine a "special military operation" that became necessary as the United States was using the country to threaten Russia and Moscow had to defend Russian-speaking inhabitants from persecution.

Ukraine says it is fighting an imperial-style land grab and that Putin’s claims of persecution are nonsense.

Military aid

Western countries have ramped up weapons supplies to Ukraine in recent days as the fighting in the east has intensified. More than 40 countries met this week at a US air base in Germany and pledged to send heavy arms such as artillery for what is expected to be a vast battle of opposing armies along a heavily fortified front line on open, flat terrain. Russia has also reported what it says have been a series of Ukrainian strikes on Russian regions which border

Ukraine, and has warned that such attacks risk significant escalation. On Thursday, two powerful explosions were heard in the Russian city of Belgorod near the border with

Ukraine, two witnesses told Reuters. It was not immediately clear what caused them and whether there were any casualties or damage.

Ukraine has not directly accepted responsibility for strikes inside Russia but says the incidents are payback, while Russia has taken umbrage at statements from Nato member Britain that it is legitimate for Ukraine to target Russian logistics.

“In the West, they are openly calling on Kyiv to attack Russia including with the use of weapons received from Nato countries,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters in Moscow. “I don’t advise you to test our patience further.”

‘Innocent civilians’

When Russian forces were driven away from Kyiv last month, they left behind destroyed suburbs strewn with the bodies of hundreds of slain civilians in what western countries call clear evidence of war crimes. Moscow says, without evidence, that such signs of suspected atrocities are fake.

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres struck an emotional note during a visit to the devastated, formerly Russian-occupied Kyiv suburbs of Borodyanka and Bucha.

“Innocent civilians were living in these buildings, they were paying the highest price for a war which they have not contributed to at all,” Mr Guterres told reporters in Borodyanka.

Mr Guterres met Mr Putin in Moscow on Wednesday for what proved a failed peace mission. Russia rebuffed Mr Guterres’s offer to help evacuate Mariupol, the besieged port where the war’s bloodiest and most destructive fighting has raged. – Reuters