The ongoing Russian military invasion of Ukraine is laying the groundwork for Russia to annex entire swathes of Ukrainian territory, according to U.S. intelligence assessments shared by White House National Security Council (NSC) spokesman John Kirby on Tuesday.
In a White House press briefing, Kirby said “We have information today, including from downgraded intelligence that we’re able to share with you, about how Russia is laying the groundwork to annex Ukrainian territory that it controls, in direct violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.”
Kirby, who is the NSC Coordinator for Strategic Communications said the U.S. has seen “ample evidence” both through intelligence sources and information available in the public domain that “Russia is beginning to roll out a version of what you could call an ‘annexation playbook,’ very similar to the one we saw in 2014.”
In 2014, Russian special operations forces and local pro-Russian militias seized control of the Crimean Peninsula and the major port city of Sevastopol. The Russian annexation of Crimea came just days after then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich fled the country ahead of an impeachment vote. The people in Crimea voted on a referendum to declare independence from Ukraine and become a federal subject of the Russian government.
Days after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, unmarked Russian troops and Pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region seized control of areas in Donetsk and Luhansk, and pushed for Crimea-style referendums to declare independence from Ukraine and become territories of Russia. Efforts to become a Russian territory were paused during the Minsk II Agreement, but Russian forces reportedly remained in the Donestk and Luhansk regions. Days before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin signified Russia’s recognition of the sovereignty of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic and sent more Russian troops into those areas under the pretense of providing a peacekeeping force to protect the areas from Ukrainian attacks.
On Tuesday, Kirby described similarities between Russia’s actions in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk and the areas that have come under Russian control since their invasion of Ukraine began in February.
“Already, Russia is installing illegitimate proxy officials in areas of Ukraine that are under its control,” Kirby said. “And we know their next moves. First, these proxy officials will arrange sham referenda on joining Russia. Then, Russia will use those sham referenda as a basis to try to claim annexation of sovereign Ukrainian territory.”
Kirby said Russia is currently reviewing detailed plans that will purportedly focus on annexing the entire Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (an oblast is an administrative region in Ukraine similar to a state in the U.S.). Kirby said Russia will similarly act to annex Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
“The Kremlin has not disclosed the timeline for the referenda,” Kirby said. “But Russian proxies in these territories claim they will take place later this year, possibly in conjunction with Russia’s September regional elections.
Kirby said Russian banks are already operating in these occupied Ukrainian areas and working to establish the Russian Ruble as the default currency in those areas.
Russia is reportedly further isolating these occupied areas by sabotaging civilian internet access, seizing control of broadcast towers and replacing telecommunications infrastructure.
Kirby said Russian occupiers are also targeting Ukrainians suspected of ties to resistance efforts, establishing loyalist security forces.
Kirby said Russian occupiers are also forcing residents to apply for Russian citizenship, and issuing Russian passports.
“So what are the implications? At the start of the year, Russia told the world that it was not planning to invade Ukraine, and now we’re expected to believe that they’re not going to plan to annex Ukrainian territory,” Kirby said. “Annexation by force would be a gross violation of the U.N. Charter, and we will not allow it to go unchallenged or unpunished.”
Kirby said the U.S. would continue to provide security assistance to Ukraine in response to these annexation efforts.
“Later this week, the administration will announce the next Presidential Drawdown package of weapons and equipment for Ukraine,” Kirby said. “It’ll be the 16th such drawdown to support Ukraine since the President took office.”
Kirby said this latest U.S. security assistance package will include more Highly Mobile Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), like the ones Ukrainian forces have already been using to strike high-value Russian targets and disrupt Russian supply lines. The security aide package will also include resupplies of HIMARS rockets and howitzer artillery shells.
Kirby said the Ukrainian government has a right to go on the couter-offensive and take back lost territory. “How they do that, and what systems they use, that’s for them to decide; our job, again, is to make sure they’ve got the tools and the training to be able to defend themselves.”
Kirby also said the U.S. has already begun to sanction political officials Russia has appointed to govern occupied Ukrainian territories.
“For example, just last month, we sanctioned the illegitimate Russian-installed mayor of Melitopol, as well as the chairperson and deputy chairpersons of the so-called government of the DNR,” Kirby said.
Kirby said Russia will face additional sanctions as the annexation efforts continue.