US says top Russian official in charge of 'sham' Ukraine referenda

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The United States said Tuesday that a top Russian official has been put in charge of "sham" referenda aimed at annexing parts of Ukraine as it again warned that votes could come soon.

Sergei Kiriyenko, who is President Vladimir Putin's domestic policy chief and served as prime minister under post-communist leader Boris Yeltsin, is overseeing efforts in the territories "in advance of their attempted incorporation into Russia, which would be illegal if completed," State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said.

A senior White House official said on August 24 that referenda in sections of Ukraine under Russian control could begin "in a matter of days."

Patel said that the referenda "could take place in the coming weeks, but the United States and the international community know the simple truth that all of Ukraine is and always will remain Ukraine."

"The sham referenda will attempt to give a veneer of legitimacy to a blatant land grab that would violate the Ukrainian constitution and international law," he told reporters.

The United States says Russia is preparing referenda in areas of eastern Ukraine including the country's second largest city of Kharkiv as part of the six-month-old war that initially aimed to topple the Kyiv government.

Russia organized a disputed referendum in 2014 in Crimea as part of an annexation effort after disguised Russian forces seized the peninsula from Ukraine.