Ukrainian rebel region Luhansk may vote to join Russia

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LONDON, March 27 (Reuters) - The Russian-backed eastern Ukrainian rebel region of Luhansk said on Sunday it may hold a referendum on joining Russia, drawing a warning from Kyiv that any such vote would have no legal basis and trigger a stronger international response.

Three days before ordering the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin recognised the Ukrainian rebel regions of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent states, though the rest of the world considers them part of Ukraine.

Ukraine, which says it is fighting for its existence against what it casts as an imperial-style land grab by Russia, has repeatedly said it will never agree to Russia's annexation of its territory - the hardest part of peace talks with Moscow.

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"I think that in the near future a referendum will be held on the territory of the republic," Leonid Pasechnik, the leader of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, was quoted as saying by the region's news outlet.

"The people will exercise their ultimate constitutional right and express their opinion on joining the Russian Federation."

Ukraine said such a referendum in occupied Ukrainian territory would have no legal basis and would face a strong response from the international community, deepening Russia's global isolation. read more

"All fake referendums in the temporarily occupied territories are null and void and will have no legal validity," Ukraine's foreign ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko said in a statement to Reuters.

"Instead, Russia will facе an even stronger response from the international community, further deepening its global isolation."

Putin says what he casts as a "special military operation" was needed to defend Russia against the United States which he said was arming Ukraine and developing it into an "anti-Russia" with the aim of admitting it into the NATO military alliance.

Russia also says the operation was needed to defend Russian speaking populations against persecution from Ukraine's government which it says is a puppet controlled by Washington.

Ukraine says such claims are simply a pretext for an occupation and that Moscow does not understand that Ukraine is a sovereign country.

After Russian forces in 2014 took control of Crimea - first annexed by Russia in 1783 - a referendum on joining Russia was held. Voters chose overwhelmingly to join Russia. Ukraine said the referendum was illegal and that Crimea is part of Ukraine.

The West imposed sanctions on Russia over the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Moscow says the majority of the people of Crimea wanted to join Russia.

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Reporting by Reuters; editing by Guy Faulconbridge, William Maclean

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