Kremlin figures indicated that the expected annexations would raise the prospect of NATO becoming involved in the conflict if it did not accept Russian territorial gains.
Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, said: “Entering Russian territory is a crime that allows you to use all the forces of self-defense.
“This is why these referendums are so feared in Kiev and the West. They would completely change the vector of Russia’s development for decades. And not just our country – the geopolitical transformation of the world would be irreversible once the new territories were incorporated into Russia.”
Margarita Simonyan, the influential head of state television network RT, said: “Judging by what is happening and what will happen, this week marks the eve of our imminent nuclear war victory. I see no other option.”
Washington has so far said that weapons it has supplied to Ukraine cannot be used to fire on Russian territory. However, this does not apply to illegally annexed territory such as Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014.
Tatyana Stanovaya, a Russia analyst at R.Politik, said:[This] is an absolutely clear ultimatum from Russia to Ukraine and the West – either Ukraine pulls out or there will be nuclear war.
“To secure a victory, Putin is ready to immediately hold the referenda to get the right, as he sees it, to use nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory.”
Ukrainian officials said the Kiev counter-offensive would continue even if Russia formally annexed new territories.
Dmytro Kuleba, the foreign minister, said: “Sham referendums will not change anything. Russia is and remains an aggressor that illegally occupies parts of Ukrainian land. Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will continue to liberate them no matter what Russia has to say.”