Four occupied regions of Ukraine are set to start voting on Friday in Kremlin-organized referendums on whether to join Russia, setting the stage for Moscow to annex the areas in a sharp escalation of the nearly seven-month war. .
Ukraine and its Western allies have dismissed the votes as illegitimate and neither free nor fair, saying they will have no binding force.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and US President Joe Biden both called the votes “fake referendums” this week, while French President Emmanuel Macron said they would have “no legal consequences” and the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy called them “noise” to distract the public. .
Authorities in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, which make up the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine, known as Donbass, abruptly announced just three days ago that referendums on joining Russia would take place from Friday. Moscow-backed officials in the southern Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions also called for votes.
The moves followed months of mixed signals from Moscow and separatist officials about referendums that reflected changes on the battlefield.
During the summer, when the Kremlin was hoping for a quick takeover of the entire Donbass region, local officials were talking about organizing the votes in September.
Russian troops and local separatist forces have taken control of almost all of the Luhansk region, but only about 60% of the Donetsk region. The slow Russian offensive in the east and Ukrainian efforts to reclaim areas in the Kherson region have prompted officials in Moscow to talk of delaying votes until November.
Kremlin plans have changed again after a lightning Ukrainian counteroffensive this month forced Russian troops to withdraw from large swathes of the northeast Kharkiv region and raised the prospect of more gains by Kyiv forces.
Observers say that by moving quickly to absorb territories captured by Russia, the Kremlin hopes to force Ukraine to halt its counteroffensive and accept the current occupation zones or face devastating retaliation.
The five-day voting process will take place in the absence of independent observers and will provide ample room to rig the result.
Referendums are a familiar Russian tactic
If hastily organized referendums sound familiar, that’s because it’s a tactic Russia has used before.
In 2014, he organized a hastily organized referendum in Ukraine’s Crimea region, which was also denounced by the West as illegal and illegitimate. Moscow used the vote as justification to annex the Black Sea peninsula in a move that went unrecognized by most of the world.
The 2014 vote in Crimea was held under the close watch of Russian troops shortly after they passed the peninsula, where most residents were pro-Moscow.
Separatists who have controlled large swaths of Donbass since 2014 have long pushed to join Russia and have shown little tolerance for dissent. When the rebellion broke out there, the separatists quickly held referendums in which a majority voted to join Russia, but the Kremlin ignored the result.
Both regions declared independence from Ukraine weeks after the annexation of Crimea, sparking eight years of fighting that President Vladimir Putin used as a pretext to launch an invasion in February to protect their residents.
Anti-Russian opposition in southern Ukraine
In the southern regions, occupied by Russian troops in the early days of the invasion, anti-Russian feelings are strong. Hundreds of pro-Kyiv activists have been arrested, and many claim to have been tortured. Others were forcibly evicted and tens of thousands fled.
Since Russian forces invaded the Kherson region and part of the Zaporizhzhia region, Moscow-appointed authorities have cut Ukrainian TV broadcasts, replacing them with Russian ones. They distributed Russian passports to residents, introduced the ruble, and even issued Russian license plates to pave the way for their incorporation into Russia.
Moscow-appointed administrations have been frequently attacked by members of the Ukrainian resistance movement, who have killed local officials, bombed polling stations and other government buildings, and helped the Ukrainian military target key infrastructure.