Four Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine are expected to vote in referendums on Russia joining Russia on Friday, in a move that will step up the stakes on Moscow’s invasion seven months after the fighting started.
The referendums, which are illegal under international law, could pave the way for Russia’s annexation of the territories, allowing Moscow to portray the ongoing Ukrainian counter-offensive as an attack on Russia itself.
Such a move could provide Moscow with a pretext to escalate its faltering war, which saw Kiev recapture thousands of square miles of territory this month.
In a speech on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin brought up the specter of nuclear weapons in his speech and said he would use “all means at our disposal” if he believed that Russia’s “territorial integrity” would be compromised. .
The votes, expected to take place in five days, were called by pro-Russian officials in the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and in the Russian-occupied parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhya in the south, with questions about the vote varying slightly according to of the region. Together, the four regions make up about 18% of Ukraine’s territory.
The plans, held under military occupation and effectively executed at gunpoint, have been strongly condemned by both the government of Ukraine and its allies in the West as “a sham.” The European Union has said it will not recognize the results and has indicated that it is preparing a new package of sanctions against Russia.
Putin backed the referendum in a speech to the nation on Wednesday.
“The parliaments of the People’s Republics of Donbas and the civil-military administrations of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions have decided to hold a referendum on the future of these areas. They have asked Russia to support this move and we have emphasized that we will do everything we can to ensure the safe conditions in which people can express their will,” he said.
In both the Luhansk and Zaporizhzhya regions, local authorities have urged people to vote from home because they can deliver ballot boxes.
Ahead of the vote, pro-Russian authorities tried to get voters excited. The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti showed a poster that was distributed in Luhansk. It says, “Russia is the future.”
“We are united by a 1000-year history,” it reads. “For centuries we were part of the same great country. The breakup of the state was a major political disaster. … It is time to restore historic justice.”
Observers say it seems unlikely that such a rushed process could be successful or fair in areas where many voters live close to the front lines of the conflict. In addition, the voting databases are likely out of date due to widespread internal relocation since the start of the conflict. In Kherson, for example, Ukrainian officials have said that about half of the pre-war population has left.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which oversees the elections, condemned what it said were “illegal referendums”.
“Any so-called ‘referenda’ planned by or with the support of the armed forces illegally exercising de facto control in the occupied territories of Ukraine would violate international standards and obligations under international humanitarian law, and its outcome will therefore not be legal violence,” said the OSCE, which oversees elections in 57 member states.
A referendum organized in Crimea in 2014, in which 97% of voters officially returned for annexation, was ratified by Russian lawmakers within a week.
This time around, some regions plan to release the results earlier than others. Authorities in Luhansk said they would announce the results the day after the polls ended, while authorities in Kherson will wait five days after polling stations close.
Before this week, pro-Russian officials in the occupied territories had indicated that potential votes would be postponed due to the security situation — as Ukrainian forces continue offensives in parts of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhya, and Russian positions and supply lines in Kherson come under pressure. almost daily attacks by Ukrainian artillery.
Early this week there was a sudden and synchronized change of heart.
Russian politicians have since been quick to offer their support, noting that when these regions join Russia — assuming the votes are in favour — they will be entitled to Moscow’s full protection.
Russian lawmaker Konstantin Kosachev has said that Russia will have a duty to protect these regions and that any attack on them will be considered an attack on Russia “with all its consequences”.
Former Russian President and Vice-Chairman of the Russian National Security Council Dmitry Medvedev was more explicit, saying that this would have “enormous significance” for the “systemic defense” of the residents and that all weapons in Moscow’s arsenal, including strategic nuclear weapons, would be destroyed. can be used to defend areas connected to Russia from Ukraine.
“Entering Russian territory is a crime that allows you to use all self-defense forces,” Medvedev said.