The Russian-backed self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic in eastern Ukraine could hold a referendum soon on joining Russia, the rebel region's news outlet cited local leader Leonid Pasechnik as saying on Sunday.

"I think that in the near future a referendum will be held on the territory of the republic," Pasechnik said. "The people will exercise their ultimate constitutional right and express their opinion on joining the Russian Federation."

Russia last month recognised Luhansk and Donetsk self-proclaimed republics as independent and ordered what it called a peacekeeping operation in the region shortly after.

On Feb. 24, Russia sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine in what it called a special operation to degrade its southern neighbour’s military capabilities and root out people it called dangerous nationalists.

Ukrainian forces have mounted stiff resistance and the West has imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia in an effort to force it to withdraw its forces. (Reporting by Reuters; editing by Guy Faulconbridge)