What Russia hopes to achieve with sham referendums in Ukraine

Deutsche Welle

Posted at Sep 22 2022 11:00 AM | Updated as of Sep 22 2022 11:42 AM

A Ukrainian soldier sets up a National flag on the stele reading 'Donetsk Oblast' on a symbolic border between the Kharkiv and Donetsk areas, Ukraine, Sept. 20, 2022 amid Russia's military invasion. Yevgen Honcharenko, EPA-EFE 
A Ukrainian soldier sets up a National flag on the stele reading 'Donetsk Oblast' on a symbolic border between the Kharkiv and Donetsk areas, Ukraine, Sept. 20, 2022 amid Russia's military invasion. Yevgen Honcharenko, EPA-EFE 

Russia had already declared its intent in spring, and is now going ahead with plans to annex the territories it has occupied in the south and east of Ukraine on a fast-track basis. Simultaneous votes in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions have been scheduled from September 23 to September 27. In a speech on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that Moscow would recognize the results.

Just as it did with the Crimean annexation in 2014, Russia is making a point of appearing not to be involved. It was local Ukrainian politicians supported by the Russian military who announced the so-called "referendums." As in the case of Crimea eight years ago, the vote was brought forward from a previously suggested date — that of November 4. Regional referendums are banned in Ukraine. Like in Crimea, there will be no independent election monitoring.

'Yes' or 'no'

However, that is as far as the similarities go — there are far more differences.

Donetsk and Luhansk are separatist republics that have effectively been under Russian control since 2014. Vladimir Putin recognized them as independent states shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February. The Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, on the other hand, were occupied almost entirely or partially by Russia only after the invasion began. Fighting continues in all four regions to this day. A referendum had also been planned in the areas east of Kharkiv, which were occupied until a few days ago. The successful Ukrainian counteroffensive seems to have dashed that idea.

Russian media are reporting that there will be regional differences. In Donetsk and Luhansk, the ballot will pose a single question, to be answered with a "yes" or a "no," on whether to join the Russian Federation. In Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, three questions will be asked but only one "yes" or "no" answer will be possible. Are you for secession from Ukraine, establishing an independent country and joining the Russian Federation? Voting will also take place in Russia, where hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have fled since 2014. The majority of Ukrainian refugees, however — several million — have fled to regions controlled by Kyiv and abroad.

There will be no electronic voting. Mobile election teams escorted by police are scheduled to make house visits in the Zaporizhzhia region, the Russian-appointed head of administration, Yevgeny Balitsky, told Russian state broadcaster Rossiya-24 on Tuesday.

Russia's goals

Once the annexation has been formalized, the idea is that fighters from Donetsk and Luhansk will be able to join the Russian army. But Moscow plans to recruit volunteers in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. The annexation of the new territories would allow Russia to use "all the forces of self-defense," former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wrote on his Telegram channel on Tuesday. Many observers interpreted that as a threat to use nuclear weapons. However, a Ukrainian attack on a Russian military airport in the Russian-annexed territory of Crimea last month did not trigger an immediate Russian response.

Russia's original plan to hold what was to look like an orderly vote has been scrapped, said Dmitry Oreshkin, a Russian political scientist. He told DW that a vote taking place "during a war that almost half of the population has fled," could not be taken seriously.

2019 survey in Donbas: no majority for annexation

There is no reliable data on the current mood in Ukraine's Russian-occupied territories. According to a 2019 survey commissioned by the Berlin Center for East European and International Studies (ZOiS), fewer than one out of two, about 45%, of the residents of the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk were in favor of annexation to Russia. At that time, 27% supported an autonomous status, — and 54% of respondents in the two regions advocated a return to Ukraine.

This article was originally written in German.

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