Russia pledges ‘full protection’ to Ukraine regions annexed by Moscow in nuclear threat

Russia has sought to defend its seven-month-old war in Ukraine, with Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov telling the United Nations that regions of Ukraine where widely criticized referendums are being held would get Russia's "full protection" if annexed by Moscow.

Voting continues in Russia-backed referendums in Eastern Ukraine regions

Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine have begun holding referendums asking voters whether they want to join Russia.

Russia has sought to defend its seven-month-old war in Ukraine, with Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov telling the United Nations that regions of Ukraine where widely criticized referendums are being held would get Russia's "full protection" if annexed by Moscow.

The votes in four Eastern Ukrainian regions, aimed at annexing territory Russia has taken by force since its invasion in February, were staged for a third day on Sunday. The Russian parliament could move to formalize the annexation within days.

By incorporating the four areas of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia into Russia, Moscow could portray attacks to retake them as an attack on Russia itself, a warning to Kyiv and its Western allies.

In a televised address on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of troops and indirectly threatened to use nuclear weapons, saying his country "has various means of destruction" and "we will certainly use all the means at our disposal."

As Putin increases his rhetoric amid the ongoing referendums in the four Ukrainian regions, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday that heavy fighting is taking place with Russian forces in many places along the frontline, some with "positive results" for Kyiv.

Ukraine blasts referendums

Ukraine and its allies have dismissed the referendums as a sham designed to justify an escalation of the war and a mobilization drive by Moscow after recent battlefield losses.

In his address on Wednesday, Putin ordered Russia's first military mobilization since the Second World War. The move triggered protests across Russia and sent many men of military age fleeing.

Two of Russia's most senior lawmakers on Sunday addressed a string of complaints about the mobilization, ordering regional officials to get a handle on the situation and swiftly solve the "excesses" that have stoked public anger.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly and the world's media in New York on Saturday, Lavrov sought to justify Russia's invasion of its neighbour, repeating Moscow's false claims that the elected government in Kyiv was illegitimately installed and filled with neo-Nazis.

He cast opposition to what Russia calls a "special operation" as limited to the United States and countries under its sway. Nearly three-quarters of countries in the assembly voted to reprimand Russia and demand it withdraw its troops.

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Lavrov told a news conference after his speech that the regions where votes are underway would be under Moscow's "full protection" if they are annexed by Russia.

Asked if Russia would have grounds for using nuclear weapons to defend the annexed regions, Lavrov said Russian territory, including territory "further enshrined" in Russia's constitution in the future, "is under the full protection of the state."

Ukraine's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said Russia's mentions of the possible use of nuclear weapons were "absolutely unacceptable" and Kyiv would not give in to them.

The Russian annexations raise the risk of a direct military confrontation between Russia and the NATO military alliance, as Western arms are being used by Ukrainian troops.

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Sunday that the United States would respond decisively to any Russian use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine and that it had spelled out to Moscow the "catastrophic consequences" it would face.

"If Russia crosses this line, there will be catastrophic consequences for Russia. The United States will respond decisively," Sullivan told NBC's Meet the Press program.

Annexation looms

The Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, may debate bills incorporating the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine into Russia on Thursday, the state-run TASS news agency said on Saturday, citing an unnamed source.

The Interfax agency quoted a source saying the upper house could consider the bill the same day, and RIA Novosti, also citing an unnamed source, said Putin could be preparing to make a formal address to an extraordinary joint session of both houses on Friday.

Russia says the referendums, hastily organized after Ukraine recaptured swaths of the northeast in a counter-offensive this month, enable people in those regions to express their view.

The territory controlled by Russian or Russian-backed forces in the four regions represents about 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory.

Adding Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, Russia would have gained an area about the size of the U.S. state of Pennsylvania.

However, Russia does not fully control any of the four regions, with only about 60 per cent of Donetsk region controlled by Russian or Russian-backed forces.

Zelenskyy said on Sunday his country would regain all of the territory Russia had taken.

"We will definitely liberate our entire country — from Kherson to the Luhansk region, from Crimea to the Donetsk region," he said on the Telegram messaging app.

Attacks on civilians

Ukraine and Russia traded accusations on Sunday of attacks on civilians, with Ukraine's military saying that Russian forces had launched dozens of missile attacks and airstrikes on military and civilian targets in the past 24 hours.

Russia used drones to attack the centre of the southern city of Odesa, Ukraine's military said. No casualties were reported.

Russia denies deliberately attacking civilians.

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Its RIA state news agency reported that Ukrainian forces bombed a hotel in the city of Kherson, killing two people. Russian forces have occupied the southern city since the early days of the invasion on Feb. 24.

There was no immediate response from Ukraine.

Russia's Defence Ministry also said Ukrainian forces had continued attacks around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in the south of the country, including launching eight "kamikaze drones" at the facility, which it controls.

Reuters was unable to verify battlefield reports.

Putin's mobilization drive has stirred unrest in Russia. More than 2,000 people have been detained across the country for protesting against the draft, according to independent monitoring group OVD-Info.

In the southern Russian region of Dagestan, police clashed on Sunday with people opposed to the mobilization.

Public anger has appeared to be particularly strong in poor ethnic minority regions such as Dagestan, a Muslim-majority region located on the shores of the Caspian Sea in the mountainous North Caucasus.

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