Understand what’s behind the referendums in Russian-occupied Ukrainian provinces

Four Moscow-controlled regions in the east and south of Ukraine should start voting on Friday, the 23rd, in referendums planned by the Kremlin to become part of Russialaying the groundwork for the annexation of the area, in a sharp escalation of the nearly seven-month war.

The two breakaway regions of the Donbas, Donetsk and Luhansk, along with Kherson and Zaporizhzia, intend to conduct the polls over five days in a bid to stop Ukrainian onslaughts to retake these areas.

In practice, if the population approves the annexation, Moscow would consider the four regions as part of its own territory, making a Ukrainian aggression against these areas an attack on the Russian nation. That possibility worries the West, especially after Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons against any attack on his country’s territory.

Ukraine and its Western allies have dismissed the referendums as illegitimate – neither free nor fair – saying they will not be binding. Learn more about referendums and their potential implications:

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The Kremlin has used this tactic before. In 2014, it held a hastily convened referendum in the Crimea, in Ukraine, which was also denounced by the West as illegal and illegitimate. Moscow used the vote as justification for annexing the Black Sea in a move that has not been recognized by most of the world.

The decision to hold the new referendums sent conflicting signals from Moscow and separatist officials whether they reflected changes on the battlefield.

In recent months, when the Kremlin was expecting a quick capture of the entire Donbas region, local officials spoke about organizing the votes in September.

Military guards polling station in Donetsk People's Republic, one of the regions to have referendum
Military guards polling station in Donetsk People’s Republic, one of the regions to have referendum Photograph: AP – 09/22/2022

Russian troops and local separatist forces took control of virtually the entire Luhansk region, but only about 60% of the Donetsk region. The slow pace of Russia’s offensive in the east and Ukrainian pressure to reclaim areas in the Kherson region have officials in Moscow talking about delaying votes until November.

The Kremlin’s plans changed again after a lightning Ukrainian counteroffensive this month forced Russian troops to retreat from wide swaths of northeastern Kharkiv and raised the prospect of further gains by Kiev’s forces.

Observers say that by moving quickly to absorb captured territories, the Kremlin hopes to force Ukraine to halt its counter-offensive and either accept current occupation areas or face devastating retaliation.

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What is happening in the regions where voting will take place?

The 2014 vote in Crimea was held under close surveillance by Russian troops shortly after they had overtaken the peninsula, where most residents were pro-Moscow. Separatists who have controlled large parts of the Donbas since 2014 have long been pushing to join Russia and show little tolerance for dissent.

When the rebellion broke out there, separatists quickly organized referendums in which the majority voted to join Russia, but the Kremlin ignored the result.

The two regions declared their independence from Ukraine weeks after the annexation of Crimea, triggering eight years of fighting that President Putin used it as a pretext to launch an invasion in February to protect its residents.

In the southern regions, which were occupied by Russian troops in the early days of the invasion, anti-Russian sentiment is strong. Hundreds of pro-Kiev activists were arrested, with many claiming they were tortured. Others were forcibly deported and tens of thousands fled.

Since Russian forces invaded the Kherson region and part of the Zaporizhzia region, Moscow-appointed authorities have cut Ukrainian TV broadcasts, replacing them with Russian programming. They handed out Russian passports to residents, introduced the ruble, and even issued Russian plates to pave the way for their incorporation into Russia.

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Moscow-appointed administrations have come under frequent attacks from members of the Ukrainian resistance movement, which has killed local officials, bombed polling stations and other government buildings and helped the Ukrainian military attack key infrastructure.

What is said about the legitimacy of the vote?

The five-day voting process will take place in the absence of independent monitors and offers ample scope for manipulation of the outcome. When the referendums were announced earlier this week, the West immediately questioned their legitimacy. The US President, Joe Bidenand the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholzreferred to them as hoaxes, and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, said they would have “no legal consequences”. The Ukrainian President, Volodmyr Zelenskyalso called them “noise” to distract the audience.

In a statement released on Thursday, the 22nd, NATO said it would not recognize the “illegal and illegitimate annexation” of the regions. “The false referendums in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzia and Kherson regions of Ukraine have no legitimacy and will be a flagrant violation of the UN Charter. NATO allies will not recognize its illegal and illegitimate annexation. Those lands are Ukraine.”

How are referendums related to Russia’s military deployment?

A day after the referendums were announced, Putin ordered a partial mobilization of reservists to reinforce its forces in Ukraineand also declared that he was ready to use nuclear weapons to ward off any attack on Russian territory.

The Defense Ministry said the mobilization – Russia’s first since the 2nd War – intends to call up about 300,000 reservists with previous military experience. Observers point out, however, that Putin’s decree is broad enough to allow the military to increase the numbers if necessary. Some reports suggest that the Kremlin’s objective is to gather 1 million men, in a secret part of the decree.

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Vehicles pass billboards with pro-Russia slogans in Luhansk
Vehicles pass billboards with pro-Russia slogans in Luhansk
Photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters – 09/20/2022

The Kremlin has long avoided taking such an unpopular move, fearful of fomenting discontent and eroding support for Putin. The latest Ukrainian counteroffensive exposed Russia’s inability to control the 1,000km front line with its current limited force of volunteers. Military experts say it will take months for the newly drafted reservists to be combat-ready.

How is Putin’s nuclear threat related to referendums?

As Putin struggles for ways to avoid further humiliating defeats, he signaled his willingness on Wednesday to of using nuclear weapons to protect the country’s territory – a blunt warning to Ukraine to stop pressing its offensive in the regions that are now due to become part of Russia.

Observers saw Putin’s threat as an effective ultimatum for Ukraine and its Western supporters to freeze the conflict or face a potential escalation to a nuclear strike. While Russian military doctrine predicts the use of atomic weapons in response to a nuclear attack or aggression involving conventional weapons that “threatens the very existence of the state”, Putin’s statement further reduced the limit on their use.

Dmitri Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council chaired by Putin, amplified the president’s threat on Thursday, saying that after absorbing the four Ukrainian regions, Moscow could use “any Russian weapon, including strategic nuclear weapons” to defend it. them.

The mention of strategic nuclear forces, which include intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range bombers, sent a warning that Russia could hit not only Ukraine but also the US and its allies with nuclear weapons in the event of an escalation.

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Zelensky brushed off the nuclear threat, referring to it as a braggadocio and promised to liberate all occupied territories./AP

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About Abhishek Pratap

Food maven. Unapologetic travel fanatic. MCU's fan. Infuriatingly humble creator. Award-winning pop culture ninja.

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