Four Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine are set to begin voting in referendums on joining Russia on Friday, raising the stakes for an invasion of Moscow seven months after the fighting began.
The referendums, which are illegal under international law, could pave the way for Russian annexation of the areas, allowing Moscow to portray the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive as an attack on Russia itself.
Such a move could provide Moscow with a pretext to step up its faltering war, which has seen Kyiv regain thousands of square kilometers of territory this month.
In an address on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the specter of nuclear weapons in his address, saying he would use “every means at our disposal” if he felt Russia’s “territorial integrity” was threatened. .
The votes, which are expected to take place over five days, were called by pro-Russian officials in the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and the Russian parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south, with questions on the ballot . varying slightly by region. Together, the four regions make up about 18% of Ukraine’s territory.
The plans, which are being held under military occupation and effectively carried out at gunpoint, have been strongly condemned by both the Ukrainian government and its Western allies as “a sham”. The European Union said it would not recognize the results and indicated that it was preparing a new set of sanctions against Russia.
Putin backed the referendums in an address to the nation on Wednesday.
“The parliaments of the people’s republics of Donbass and the civil-military administration of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions have decided to hold a referendum on the future of these territories. They asked Russia to support this step, and we stressed that we will do everything to ensure security conditions for people to express their will,” he said.
In Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions, local authorities urged people to vote at home, saying ballot boxes could be brought to them.
Before the votes, the pro-Russian authorities tried to enthuse voters. Russian state news agency RIA Novosti showed a poster distributed in Luhansk. It reads: “Russia is the future”.
“We are united by a 1,000-year history,” he says. “For centuries we have been part of the same great country. The breakup of the state was a huge political disaster. … It is time to restore historical justice.
Observers say it seems unlikely that such a rushed process, in areas where many voters live near the frontlines of the conflict, could succeed or be fair. Moreover, due to widespread internal displacement since the start of the conflict, electoral databases are likely outdated. In Kherson, for example, Ukrainian officials said that about half of the pre-war population had left.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which monitors the elections, condemned what it called “illegal referendums”.
“Any so-called ‘referendum’ planned by or with the support of forces illegally exercising de facto control in the occupied territories of Ukraine would be contrary to international standards and obligations under international humanitarian law, and their outcome will not therefore no legal force,” said the OSCE, which monitors elections in 57 member states.
A referendum held in Crimea in 2014, which officially saw 97% of voters support annexation, was ratified by Russian lawmakers within a week.
This time around, some regions plan to announce the results earlier than others. Authorities in Luhansk said they would announce the results the day after voting ends, while in Kherson authorities will wait five days after polls close.
Prior to this week, pro-Russian officials in the occupied areas had indicated that any votes would be postponed due to the security situation – as Ukrainian forces continue their offensives in parts of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia, and positions and Russian supply lines in Kherson come under almost daily strikes from Ukrainian artillery.
There was a sudden, synchronized change of heart earlier this week.
Russian politicians were quick to offer their support, noting that when those regions join Russia — assuming the votes are in favor — they will be entitled to Moscow’s full protection.
Russian lawmaker Konstantin Kosachev said Russia would have a duty to protect these regions and that any attack on them would be considered an attack on Russia “with all its consequences”.
Former Russian President and Deputy Chairman of the Russian National Security Council Dmitry Medvedev was more explicit, saying it would be of “enormous significance” for the “systemic protection” of residents and that all weapons in the arsenal of Moscow, including strategic nuclear weapons, could be used. defend the territories attached to Russia from Ukraine.
“Encroachment on Russian territory is a crime that allows you to use all self-defense forces,” Medvedev said.