Zelensky played down the importance of the plans by pro-Russian authorities in the regions of Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia to hold the votes from 23 to 27 September.

“Today (Tuesday) there was pretty big news from Russia. But what actually happened? Have we heard anything we didn’t hear before?” he said.

“Our position does not change according to this noise or any other announcement. Let’s preserve our unity, protect Ukraine, liberate our land and not show any weakness.”

Kyiv’s Western allies were swift to condemn the announced referendums. German chancellor Olaf Scholz called them “sham” votes, while French president Emmanuel Macron described them as a “travesty”.

The United States said they were “an affront to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity” and that Washington would never recognise Russian claims to annexed Ukrainian territory.

The planned annexation referendums have been prepared for months and come as Ukrainian forces have made notable gains in the northeastern Kharkiv region and in the east.

The votes follow the model of the 2014 referendum by which Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula in southern Ukraine, which Kyiv and the West refused to recognise.

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