Russia will soon hold “sham referenda” in Ukrainian territory in an attempt to create another pretext for war, the Foreign Secretary has told the United Nations.
James Cleverly, who took the job at the start of this month, urged other countries to “reject this charade” and claimed the results of the votes were already been fixed in Russia.
Ukraine has recently recaptured more than 6,000 square kilometres of occupied territory, prompting a backlash from Vladimir Putin which has included threats of nuclear escalation.
Western authorities are understood to be relaxed about what they regard as Kremlin “sabre rattling” and believe that the mobilisation of more Russian troops will only push Ukraine to step up its own offensives.
Mr Cleverly addressed the UN shortly after Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, who left the room before his British counterpart spoke. The Foreign Secretary said: “I sat here in February, listening to the Russian representative assuring this council that Russia had no intention of invading its neighbour. We now know that was a lie.
“And today I have listened to further instalments of Russia’s catalogues of distortions, dishonesty, and disinformation. He has left the chamber. I am not surprised, I don’t think Mr Lavrov wants to hear the collective condemnation of this council but we saw through him then and we saw through him today.”
He added: “We have information which means that we know that Russia is about to hold sham referenda on sovereign Ukrainian territory with no basis in law, under the threat of violence, after mass displacements of people in areas that voted overwhelmingly for Ukrainian independence.
“We know what Vladimir Putin is doing. He is planning to fabricate the outcome of those referenda. He is planning to use that to annex sovereign Ukrainian territory. And he is planning to use it as a further pretext to escalate his aggression. That is what he plans to do. And we call on all countries to reject this charade and refuse to recognise any results.”
Ballot papers are already being printed in Russia and the rules are being drawn up to give the votes the air of legitimacy, Mr Cleverly said.
In a House of Commons debate, Boris Johnson used his first political intervention since leaving 10 Downing Street to urge the UK Government to step up its support. He said: “If Putin is going to double down on his aggression, then we must double down in our defence of the Ukrainians, and we must be prepared to give more military assistance and more economic support and I welcome warmly the announcements from this Government this week.”
Other MPs warned that Britain must be ready for the possibility of nuclear escalation. Ex-Defence Secretary Liam Fox said: “It may be sabre-rattling – but it may be not. We have miscalculated with Putin before. We can’t afford to miscalculate again. He is a tyrant with a tyrant’s behaviour.”
Bob Seely, MP for the Isle of Wight, added: “To minimise the chances of nuclear use, tactical or strategic, we have to assume that that threat is real, and that at some point, probably as Russian troops face collapse in the south, Putin will have a decision point, to either use or not tactical weapons.” He said: “Hope is not a strategy. Keeping your fingers crossed is not a policy. At every point, Putin has chosen to escalate and increase risk. There is no sign that he will do anything different now.”