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Moscow-held regions of Ukraine will vote in the coming days on annexation by Russia, separatist officials said Tuesday, as Kyiv's troops wrest back territory captured by Moscow's forces.
Separatist authorities in the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions, as well as in the southern Kherson region, said they would hold the vote over five days beginning Friday this week and ending on Tuesday.
These territories are on the frontlines of a sweeping Ukrainian counter-offensive that has seen Kyiv's forces retake hundreds of towns and villages that had been controlled by Russia for months.
Their integration into Russia would represent a major escalation of the conflict as Moscow could try to say it was defending its own territory from Ukrainian forces.
Kyiv said the "sham" votes were meaningless and vowed to "eliminate" threats posed by Russia, saying its forces would keep retaking territory regardless of what Moscow or its proxies announced.
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Denis Miroshnichenko, a separatist leader in the Lugansk region, said pro-Moscow lawmakers had voted to hold the vote from September 23 to 27.
Shortly afterwards, a news portal associated with separatist authorities in Donetsk said the region would hold a ballot over the same dates.
Large parts of the industrial Donbas area -- made up of Donetsk and Lugansk -- have been controlled by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014, after nationwide demonstrations ousted a Kremlin-friendly Ukrainian president.
'Restore historical justice'
Russia at the time annexed the Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea from Ukraine with a vote that was criticised by Kyiv and the West, which imposed sanctions in response.
Authorities in the southern Kherson region of Ukraine also announced on Tuesday they would hold a vote over the same dates on annexation from Russia.
"I am sure that the incorporation of the Kherson region into the Russian Federation will secure our territory and restore historical justice," said the Moscow-installed head of that region, Vladimir Saldo.
He echoed a phrase used earlier in the day by Russia's former president and prime minister who invoked correcting historical wrongs, but also said the votes would bolster Russian forces.
"Encroachment into Russian territory is a crime and if it is committed, that allows you to use all possible force in self-defence," Dmitry Medvedev, now the deputy chairman of Russia's security council, said on social media.
He said the decisions would be binding and that no future leader of Russia would have the authority to reverse them.
"That is why these referendums are so feared in Kyiv and in the West. That is why they need to be carried out," he added.
Pro-Moscow authorities in Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia region -- home to Europe's largest nuclear power plant -- also announced they would hold a vote on joining Russia over the same dates.
The head of the Russian-installed administration in Zaporizhzhia, Yevgeny Balitsky, said on social media he had signed a decree to hold a vote on the region's "territorial allegiance".
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, vowed a decisive response from Kyiv to annexation votes.
"Ukraine will solve the Russian issue. The threat can be eliminated only by force," Yermak said.
Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the "sham" referendums would change nothing.
"Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say," he said in a statement online.
The votes come at a decisive moment in Russia's near seven-month invasion of Ukraine.
Russia this month suffered embarrassing battlefield losses as Ukrainian troops retook hundreds of towns and villages from Moscow's forces.
Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya wrote on social media that the announcements of the votes were a direct result of the success of the counter-offensive.
Putin, she said, wants to threaten the full use of Russia's military, including nuclear weapons, in defending Russian territory, including newly annexed regions.
"Putin does not want to win this war on the battlefield. Putin wants to force Kyiv to surrender without a fight," she said.
Speaking with newly appointed foreign ambassadors in Moscow on Tuesday, Putin said that Russia would pursue its "sovereign course" on the international stage, ahead of the UN General Assembly.
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