As Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine enters its third month, the Russian Defense Ministry has officially declared that its main aim has shifted to taking “full control” of the Donbas and southern Ukraine. According to Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin, establishing “full control” will involve orchestrating pseudo-referendums on the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” joining the Russian Federation — and on Russian-occupied Kherson declaring independence from Ukraine. However, these “referendums” have already been postponed until May, allegedly due Russia’s military failures in Ukraine.
According to three Meduza sources close to Putin’s administration, the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” (the DNR and LNR) may be set to hold Kremlin-engineered referendums on joining the Russian Federation in mid-May. Two of these people even gave specific dates for the planned “votes” — May 14 and 15, 2022.
Russia recognized the DNR and LNR as independent states just days before launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. In doing so, Moscow acknowledged their territorial claims to the entirety of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions — implying that Russia would be seeking to annex the “republics” within these boundaries (despite the fact that Kyiv still controls many large settlements in the Donbas).
According to Meduza’s sources, another pseudo-referendum may also be held on these same dates in Ukraine’s Kherson region, which Russian forces have partially occupied. Allegedly, the “vote” would be on the issue of the occupied region declaring independence from Ukraine and proclaiming itself the “Kherson People’s Republic” (modeled on those in the Donbas). Meduza’s sources also believe that Russia could move to annex the region at a later date.
At the same time, Meduza’s sources noted that these “referendums” were initially set for late April, but were postponed several times due to the Russian army’s failures at the front. As such, they said, the dates could very well be pushed again for the same reason.
Notably, Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin underscored that officials in Putin’s administration don’t think Russia should annex these “depressed regions” of Ukraine. Nevertheless, this is the personal desire of the “top leadership” — that is, of Putin himself.
The DNR and LNR authorities did not respond to Meduza’s inquiries. In March, DNR leader Denis Pushilin and LNR leader Leonid Pasechnik mentioned plans to hold referendums on joining Russia — but only after Donetsk and Luhansk establish control over their “constitutional borders.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov didn’t respond to Meduza’s questions either.
The war enters its decisive stage Meduza maps possible scenarios for Russia’s advance on Ukraine’s Donbas
Swapping Kozak for Kiriyenko
Russia’s plans for “status referendums” in the D/LNR coincide with the Kremlin changing its point man for the Donbas. As reported by RBC, Putin’s domestic policy czar Sergey Kiriyenko will now be handling DNR and LNR policy, as well. Until recently, issues related to the self-proclaimed republics were under the purview of Putin’s Deputy Chief of Staff Dmitry Kozak (who inherited the portfolio from former presidential aide Vladislav Surkov).
Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin confirmed that Kiriyenko will be handling Moscow’s Donbas policy, specifying that he will work in tandem with Andrey Yarin — the head of the Putin administration’s domestic policy department, who reportedly has close ties to the FSB. However, contrary to RBC’s report, Meduza’s sources said that Putin’s administration has yet to create a dedicated “department” for Donbas affairs.