Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Russia-controlled eastern and southern Ukrainian regions announced on Tuesday plans to start voting this week to become an integral part of Russia. The concerted and faster Kremlin-backed efforts to engulf the four regions could prepare Moscow to escalate the war following Ukraine’s successes on the battlefield.

Planning for referenda starting Friday in Lugansk, Kherson, and partially Russian-controlled Zaporizhia and Donetsk oblasts followed a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin said votes were needed, and as Moscow was losing ground in an invasion that began with nearly seven months ago, increasing pressure on the Kremlin for a rigid response.

Former president Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of the Russian Security Council under Putin, said that referenda would result in folding regions into Russia itself, making the exaggerated borders “irreversible” and enabling Moscow to use “all means” to defend them.

The votes in territory already controlled by Russia will surely follow Moscow’s footsteps. But they were already dismissed as illegal by Western leaders who support Kyiv with military and other support that helped its forces gain momentum on the battlefields to the east and south.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba condemned them as a fraud and tweeted that “Ukraine has the full right to liberate its territories and it will liberate them, whatever Russia has to say.”

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan rejected the planned votes.

“We will never recognize this territory as anything other than part of Ukraine,” he said, adding that it reflected Russia’s failures on the battlefield.

“These are not the actions of a certain country. These are not acts of force, “he said.

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In New York, where he is attending the UN General Assembly, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said: “It is very, very clear that these bogus referenda cannot be accepted.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said the referendum plans were boiled down to “cynicism.”

“Russia declared war … and is now explaining that it will hold a referendum in the same region. If it weren’t tragic, it might have been fun, “he said, adding that the votes” would have no legal effect. “

Authorities installed by Russia in the occupied territories of four Ukrainian regions presented plans to hold referenda on membership in the Russian Federation later this month. They were condemned by Ukraine

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Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevićs called for increased sanctions against Russia and more arms for Ukraine, tweeting: “We must refuse Russian blackmail.”

In Donetsk, part of the wider Donbas region of Ukraine that has been engulfed by rebel fights since 2014 and which Putin has set as the prime target of the invasion, separatist leader Denis Pushilin said the vote would “restore historical justice” to “long-term” territory of suffering people.

“They have gained the right to be part of a great country that they have always considered their homeland,” he said.

In the partially Russian-occupied Zaporizhia, pro-Russian activist Vladimir Rogov said: “The sooner we become part of Russia, the sooner peace will come.”

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Pressure inside Russia for votes and from Moscow-backed leaders in Moscow-controlled regions of Ukraine has intensified after a counteroffensive – reinforced with weapons provided by the West – to regain large areas.

Former Kremlin speechwriter and Russian political analyst Abbas Gallyamov said on Facebook that Moscow-backed separatists appeared “terrified that the Russians would abandon them” during the Ukrainian offensive and were moving forward with plans for a referendum to force the Kremlin to reach out.

As another sign that Russia is digging into a protracted and possibly intensified conflict, the Kremlin-controlled lower house of parliament voted on Tuesday to tighten the rules against desertion, surrender and looting by Russian troops. Lawmakers also voted to introduce a possible 10-year prison sentence for soldiers who refused to fight. If, as expected, it is approved by the upper house and then signed by Putin, the law will strengthen the hands of commanders against morale collapse reported among soldiers.

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In an interview with PBS News Hour in New York, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that if there is peace in Ukraine, “the return of att*cked land will become really important.”

He also repeated his long-standing position that the Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014, should be returned to Ukraine. Turkey has strong ethnic ties with the Crimean Tatars. “Since 2014, we have talked about it with my dear friend Putin and we asked him for it,” he said.

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