Russia unfurls plan to annex swathes of Ukraine

STORY: Officials in parts of Ukraine controlled by Russian forces, including the two breakaway regions - the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics - signaled Tuesday that they are moving forward with referendum votes that would allow them to be annexed by Russia.

And if that happened, Russia's President Putin would essentially be daring the West to risk a direct military confrontation between them - a conflict that U.S. President Biden has previously warned would be World War III.

This was the aftermath of what was said to be a Ukrainian artillery strike in the Luhansk region Tuesday, filmed by Reuters. A children's school was reportedly damaged.

The referendums in Luhansk and Donetsk will start on the 23rd and last five days. A top Putin ally, the former president Dmitry Medvedev, says he favors the move.

If the Russian-allied forces here make the areas formally part of Russia, that will be a serious escalation for Moscow against the U.S. and its allies.

That's because according to Medvedev, if the areas become formally part of Russia, then anyone attacking the areas is attacking Russia itself, and it's legally entitled to self-defense - an apparent future warning.

So far, the West has been careful not to supply Ukraine with weapons that could be used to shell Russian territory.

Meanwhile, Ukraine's government says the threat of referendums is, quote, "naive blackmail" and a sign Russia was running scared and its military is continuing to report advances against Russia.

A provincial governor has said Ukrainian troops are preparing to retake all of Luhansk.

On Monday Ukraine's President Zelenskiy said speed was of the essence, and that, quote, "the occupiers are clearly in a panic."

Combined, the referendum areas in question are about 15% of Ukrainian territory, an area the size of Portugal, and comes eight years after Russia annexed Crimea.